By Michele A. Boccia
After a serious illness, Joan was admitted for long-term care. Sister Peg relocated from her convent because she was no longer able to walk on her own. Tess was unable to recover after several months in the rehab unit and was moved “upstairs” for more complete care.
Illness separates sisters from their communities and lay people from their homes. The transition is often so rapid, they may not be given the chance to pack up 50-plus years of their lives. These situations and others are the source of emotional and spiritual pain faced by the residents who live at Maria Regina Residence.
Maria Regina is a ministry sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY. Numerous sisters of the order continue to serve in the facility, bringing their deep spirituality into residents’ lives. As a Catholic nursing home, the pastoral care department functions as a parish and offers Mass daily, community rosary, adoration, feast day celebrations, etc. Residents’ spiritual needs are met on many levels. However, in reviewing the results of a resident survey and listening to residents’ concerns, we heard about nonphysical pain, and most especially their spiritual pain.
Several sisters expressed that they missed the religious programs that were offered in their convents. One said, “I feel like my spirit is dying.” In response to their feedback, we expanded on Pope Francis’ Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, and a Year of Abiding in God’s Love was born. Each month we invited guests to give prayer presentations, musical performances, talks about art, and scripture. Some of our speakers included our bishop, the host of the Catholic Faith Network, theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, an imam, and a member of the Audubon Society to speak about God in nature. Local parishes, volunteers and congregations affiliated with us were invited. The response was overwhelmingly positive. It brought a sense of worth to the residents and an understanding of the depth within them in this new setting.
They also needed connection with those around them. We created two groups facilitated by volunteers, one for sisters and one for lay people. “Tea with the Saints” is our sisters group. Each Friday, fifteen sisters explore the life and ministry of a saint. If they could have tea with this saint, what might they ask? How does his/her life relate to theirs? The conversation is fluid and engaging. When I walk by, I often hear laughter and delight. In the lay group, a resident reads a story from Guideposts magazine and facilitates a discussion about the topic, which often veers off to personal stories about participants’ lives and families. A volunteer is there for support, but the group has gelled and runs on its own. It’s lively and dynamic. Members of both groups have bonded with each other, yet they welcome new residents with smiles and cheerfulness. Many residents have expressed, “This is the highlight of my week.”
What do a resident survey, Year of Abiding in God’s Love and two groups have to do with alleviating spiritual and emotional pain? Just about everything. Asking residents their opinion about what matters to them is a way of saying: “You are important to us. We care about you.” Having outside guests attend programs makes residents feel like they are part of the larger community and can lessen feelings of isolation. Being part of a small group fosters friendship and intimacy. Residents have expressed that these programs have brought life, joy and normalcy to their experience in the facility.
We also seek ways to assuage loneliness and despair by deeply listening as we take an initial spiritual assessment. When Sally arrived she was angry and distraught. She was in her early 70s; her illness was progressing, but her mind was still sharp. During our initial conversation, I learned that she was an avid knitter and gardener. I connected her with a nearby sister who knits “cancer caps” for people going through chemo. The two hit it off and meet weekly to knit together, and often the sister brings a note of thanks from one of her recipients. Sister and Sally have recently started knitting “pocket prayer patches” to give to residents during our annual retreat. Sally was also encouraged to join the gardening club. She’s now a key member. She still gets distressed at times about living in a nursing home, but with her interests being tended to, these incidents have vastly diminished.
Sister Loretta is another example of how pastoral care tends to nonphysical pain. Because her body was no longer responding to physical therapy, she became a long-term resident, and we often found her in her room weeping. Exploring her feelings, I learned that members of her parish used to visit her in the convent to seek her counsel and advice. Through her tears, she expressed a loss of meaning and purpose. We affirmed Sister Loretta’s feelings, and suggested that she consider Maria Regina as a new ministry. We invited her to sit with the dying, welcome new residents and to join our newly formed choir. As she engaged with those around her, she began to brighten and feel more at ease with her new life.
Spiritual and emotional pain can be caused by loneliness, a sense of despair, isolation, sadness, and lack of meaning — conditions that are prevalent in nursing facilities. However, by listening to residents and learning about their lives and interests, we can find creative outlets to nourish their spiritual and emotional needs. We have more to do, but it is working at Maria Regina.
Michele A. Boccia, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Maria Regina Residence in Brentwood, NY.