Older adults find spirituality in community

By Jennifer Paquette

When I became the director of spiritual care in a residential environment of 400 souls — most with dementia — where the average age was 90, I knew little about gerontology and less about how to support the spirituality of older adults. Moreover, this residence had taken the extraordinary step, many years prior, not to segregate the residents with dementia. Everyone lived together – and flourished – as a community, as Christ intended.

In my off hours, I read voraciously about aging, where I often found the phrase, “the problems of aging.” Yet, except for the occasional frustration of fitting the walkers into the chapel pews, for the most part, these women and men lived their humanity, turning daily annoyances into opportunities to overcome and to help one another.

The facility is known as a center for dementia care, but it also houses day care for children ages six months to six years. The children and adult residents interact collaboratively throughout each day. All floors, except the third, include cats, dogs, birds, and fish. The third floor is reserved for those with allergies, and also because one of the cats insisted on sleeping on the chapel altar. Many of the animals have disabilities, which just seems to be appropriate in this setting.

My office was on a hallway leading to the chapel, about the size of a typical church in the city. At nearly the identical time each morning, the walkers and whispers could be heard coming from the elevators, down the corridor toward the chapel for morning Mass. Without an obligation to attend, nonetheless, many chose Christ to begin their day. Bodies bent by arthritis and disease never failed to yield a warm smile when they saw me. I believed theirs to be the face of Christ as he gazed upon them.

Their spirituality was best lived in relation to one another, without regard to one’s limitations. Experiencing the mystery that is God was found by commingling their energies.

Their exit was noisier, as they shared how they would spend the day and at which event or activity they would see one another. This became an important lesson for me; they were intent on how they would be together throughout the day, in community. Certainly, private time occurred, but it was their time interacting together that was determinative of the quality of their day. Crowding the hallway, each would pull out the weekly page of activities tucked into the front pocket of the walker and coordinate how their days would be spent . . . together.

We offered both Roman Catholic and Protestant worship throughout the week. If you are of a certain age, you may recall when Catholics could not attend Protestant worship. That bygone did not inhibit the residents from sharing in each other’s services, enjoying the preaching of one another’s pastors. To me, it seemed that being relationally together was the point.

One of my favorite scenes was the diminutive lady who came to the rosary each day. She had been a dedicated Baptist throughout her life. Indeed, her son was a Baptist preacher. Now experiencing dementia, she was comforted in the rhythmic words of the rosary spoken by friends surrounding her. Her son accepted my invitation to come each week to conduct a worship service. He was gifted in his ability to create interactive, communal worship for residents, without regard to faith tradition.

Even for the non-religious (and, certainly, Seattle is at the top of the list of non-religious communities), the spirit of every human being is moved by something. That “something” becomes a starting point for pastoral care. Practically, even the non-religious were more interested in being in community than being a resolute “none,” meaning no religious preference. In all things, we respected and honored the individual’s beliefs and preferences. No resident was ever urged to participate in any event that might make them feel uncomfortable.

In a population of this age, there is no history of a language for spirituality. For the most part, whether Catholic or another Christian faith, “spirituality” was spoken of in terms of religious services and the attendant fellowship experienced. Yet their lived experience was barely distinguishable from those, much younger, who possess a language of spirituality. One of the roles of the chaplains was to encourage from these older adults their words which expressed their spirituality through the experiences of God in the whole of their lives, beyond the religious services. And where their voices and memory were stolen by dementia, we developed alternative practices to enable living into the mystery that is God. I keep in mind the words of Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., president of Seattle University, who said, “Spirituality is one’s lived relation to Mystery.”

Music, as you may know, is a legendary medium for reaching deep into the spirits of older adults, especially those with dementia. A 30s or 40s band, provided by the activities therapists, brings out wheelchairs and walkers and staff, and everyone has a grand time. Because of the high quality of resonance in the chapel, I asked some of the finest musicians in the city to perform (without charge) for us — and quickly hit a brick wall. Why would a resident pass up an opportunity to hear a brilliant Baroque ensemble in favor of bingo? And there was the afternoon when members of the opera performed, and, once more, bingo ruled. There were some successes, but in apparent cluelessness, I kept inviting musicians to provide their gifts to empty seats.

The residents were teaching me, but I was not learning. Their spirituality was best lived in relation to one another, without regard to one’s limitations. Experiencing the mystery that is God was found by commingling their energies. Simply being in proximity to one another did not fill their hearts; sharing in the mystery that is each of us did. Being engaged with one another – becoming excited when three tablemates all achieved a B-7 at the same time and could call out, excitedly, “Bingo!” together – this was a life lived to the fullest, exactly as God intended. Daily, the residents chose to be with one another, sharing their lived experiences, helping one another in their frailty, finding comfort, laughter and love in community. They embodied the command of Jesus: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

In the end, what the aging heart knows is that appreciating one another, forgiving one another’s foibles, loving, without reserve, the mystery that is one another, is the finest life one can have and the surest pathway to the experience of Christ.

Jennifer W. Paquette, BCC, is now retired and previously served as director of spiritual care at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle.

Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2021, 2:33 PM