Isolated but Not Forgotten
THE apostle Paul admonished fellow Christians: “Let us work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.” (Gal. 6:10) Today, we still follow that inspired direction and look for ways to do good to our fellow believers. Among those who need and deserve loving attention from the Christian congregation are our dear elderly brothers and sisters who live in nursing homes.
True, in some lands, it is customary for families to look after elderly parents at home. However, in other lands, many elderly ones often depend on the care that a nursing home can provide. What about elderly Christians who reside in nursing homes? What challenges do they face? How can they manage if they have no support from family members? How can the Christian congregation help them? And in what ways do we benefit when we visit them regularly?
Challenges Faced in Nursing Homes
When elderly Christians move into a nursing home, they may find themselves in the territory of a congregation with which they are not familiar. As a result, the local Witnesses may not think about visiting them frequently. Moreover, in the nursing home, they will likely be surrounded by people who have different beliefs. That may leave our elderly fellow Witnesses in a difficult situation.
For instance, in some areas, nursing homes arrange for religious services to be held in the facility. One caregiver observed: “Some elderly Witnesses who are unable to communicate clearly have been taken in wheelchairs to church services without being consulted about their wishes.” Further, the staff of nursing homes often use birthdays, Christmas, or Easter to vary the routine of the residents. Some Witnesses in nursing homes have also been offered food that their conscience would not allow them to eat. (Acts 15:29) If we visit our elderly brothers and sisters regularly, we will be able to help them deal with such challenges.
Support From the Congregation
The early Christians were alert to their responsibility toward the elderly when these had no family to support them. (1 Tim. 5:9) Similarly, overseers today are alert to make sure that the elderly living in nursing homes in their area are not neglected.* Robert, an elder, points out: “It would be good if Christian overseers personally visited the elderly to see their living conditions and to pray with them. The congregation can do much to care for their needs.” If we set aside time to visit the elderly, we show that we understand how important it is in Jehovah’s eyes to care for those who are in need.—Jas. 1:27.
When necessary, the elders willingly coordinate practical assistance for their brothers and sisters in local nursing homes. Robert observes what one need might be, “We should encourage elderly brothers and sisters to attend Christian meetings if they are able to do so.” However, for those who can no longer travel to the Kingdom Hall, the elders could make other arrangements. Jacqueline, who is in her mid-80’s and suffers from osteoarthritis, listens to the meetings by telephone. She says: “It does me a lot of good to hear the meetings while they are actually taking place. I would not miss them for anything in the world!”
If an elderly Christian is unable to listen to the meetings by telephone, elders could arrange for the meetings to be recorded. The person delivering the recordings to the brother or sister in the nursing home can use the opportunity to have an encouraging chat with that one. “Sharing news regarding members of the local congregation with the elderly brothers and sisters makes them feel that they are still part of our spiritual family,” says one overseer.
Understandably, many elderly ones find moving into a nursing home a stressful and disorienting experience. As a result, some tend to withdraw into themselves. However, if we visit our elderly brothers and sisters right after their relocation and express our continuing support for them, we will greatly help them to regain their inner peace and a measure of joy.—Prov. 17:22.
If elderly brothers or sisters suffer from loss of lucidity or loss of hearing or have other problems that hinder communication, some might conclude that visiting them is useless. However, our efforts to keep on visiting them, no matter how difficult it is to communicate with them, demonstrate that we continue to ‘take the lead in showing honor’ to our fellow believers. (Rom. 12:10) If the short-term memory of an elderly brother is beginning to fail, we could encourage him to recount earlier experiences—even from childhood—or to tell us how he became acquainted with Bible truth. What can we do if he struggles to find the right words? Listen patiently, and if appropriate, mention two or three words that he seems to be groping for, or sum up his thoughts and encourage him to continue. If he is confused or has a speech impediment and is difficult to understand, we could try to grasp what he means by paying close attention to the tone of his voice.
If verbal communication is no longer possible, other means could be used. Laurence, a pioneer, regularly visits Madeleine, an 80-year-old Christian sister who is no longer able to speak. Laurence explains how she communicates: “I hold Madeleine’s hand as we pray together. In turn, she lightly squeezes my hand and blinks her eyes to show appreciation for these tender moments.” Holding the hand of our elderly friends or giving them a heartfelt embrace can indeed be very reassuring to them.
Your Presence Matters
Your regular visits to the elderly may influence the quality of care they receive. Danièle, who has been visiting fellow Witnesses in nursing homes for some 20 years, observes, “When the staff of a nursing home notice that a person has regular visits, he or she gets better care.” Robert, quoted above, states: “Nursing staff are more likely to listen to someone who visits a resident regularly. They may not show the same respect to an occasional visitor.” Since nurses often deal with demanding families, they appreciate expressions of thanks from visitors. Moreover, if we develop a good relationship with the nursing staff, they may be more inclined to respect the values and beliefs of an elderly Witness patient under their care.
We can also cultivate a good relationship with the staff by offering to help with simple tasks. In some areas, a chronic shortage of qualified personnel reduces the quality of care the elderly receive. Rébecca, a nurse, recommends: “Mealtimes are hectic. So these may be good moments to visit a friend and help him eat.” We should not hesitate to ask the staff for suggestions on how we can assist.
When we make regular visits to the same nursing facility, we will be able to see what our elderly brother or sister needs, and with the permission of the personnel, we can take the initiative to meet those needs. For instance, we may be able to brighten a resident’s room with pictures of loved ones or drawings made by children. With the resident’s well-being in mind, we could bring a warm dressing gown or a few personal-care products. If the residence has a garden, could we take our friend outside for some fresh air? Laurence, quoted earlier, says: “Madeleine looks forward to my weekly visits. When I bring children along, she immediately smiles and her eyes light up!” Similar initiatives can make a big difference for those living in a nursing home.—Prov. 3:27.
Regularly visiting an elderly person may put “the genuineness of [our] love” to the test. (2 Cor. 8:8) In what way? It may be painful for us to see a friend progressively weaken. Laurence admits: “At first, Madeleine’s weakened condition affected me so much that I cried after each visit. But I learned that fervent prayer can help us overcome our fears and become more encouraging.” For years, Robert has been visiting a Christian brother named Larry who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Robert says: “Larry is so affected by his illness that I can no longer understand a word he says. But when we pray together, I can still feel his faith.”
When we visit elderly fellow believers, we not only help them but also benefit ourselves. Their determination to stay close to Jehovah while living among people with different beliefs teaches us to have faith and show courage. Their eagerness to receive spiritual food despite hearing and visual impairments highlights that “man must live, not on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth.” (Matt. 4:4) By enjoying simple things, such as a child’s smile or a shared meal, elderly ones remind us to be content with what we have. Their love for spiritual values can help us to set our own priorities.
Truly, the entire congregation benefits from the support we give to elderly ones. Why is that so? Since those who are physically weaker depend more on brotherly affection, they give the congregation opportunities to grow in showing compassion. Therefore, all of us should view care for the elderly, even over extended periods, as part of our ministering to one another. (1 Pet. 4:10, 11) If elders take the lead in this activity, they will help other congregation members to see that this aspect of our Christian activity should never be neglected. (Ezek. 34:15, 16) By our willing and loving support, we reassure our elderly fellow Christians that they are not forgotten!
As soon as a congregation secretary knows that a brother or a sister in the congregation has moved to a nursing home in another area, it would be helpful and loving immediately to notify the elders of the congregation in that area.
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“When the staff of a nursing home notice that a person has regular visits, he or she gets better care”
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Our heartfelt prayers may help an elderly fellow Witness to regain his inner peace
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Our tender expressions of affection will strengthen our elderly fellow believers