March 8, 2017 — In this article we hear from Bill Painter, who served for over 30 years as Chaplain/Spiritual Director at Judson Park, a Seattle area Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC), before retiring. Bill is an ordained American Baptist minister, clinically trained for health care ministry. He offers valuable insights into retirement life and its challenges, gained from many years of experience. We particularly like his case studies, which bring the points alive. This article is a good recommendation for choosing a CCRC with a spiritual resource like him on staff.
Q 1 What was your role at Judson Park?
I served as Chaplain/Spiritual Director at Judson Park for over 30 years. A CCRC is a community for elders serving residents in independent residential, assisted living, 24 hour skilled nursing care and memory support.
My primary role was to provide spiritual support for residents, families and team
members through personal relationships, formal worship (including memorials and funerals), spiritual growth & educational programs, and organizational & policy development. My most important role was to become a fellow traveler with residents, families and team members as they confronted the many challenges common to life.
Q2 What were some of the common challenges and issues that you saw in your CCRC, and how were you able to help?
Retirement and aging do bring many challenges. Here are some of the major ones that I saw in my community:
Transitions: Many residents have had to move from a home where they lived for 25 or more years because it is too large, too much to maintain, and often far from family. Making that move is filled with numerous obstacles, feelings, and even a deep sense of loss. Many CCRCs have skilled professionals that can assist with practical and personal issues to ease the stress and result in better decisions and outcomes.
Health Changes: Whether they be chronic health issues or acute medical crises, these can have significant impact on daily life. Having health care professionals to support the retiree and significant others strengthens the support group and often leads to higher quality of life.
Isolation: Many experts say this is the greatest risk for elders. Even when living in their long established neighborhood, as they age a person can easily become isolated with attendant physical, mental and emotional health issues. A retirement community offers opportunities to find social involvement, intellectual stimulation, active living, religious and spiritual programs, as well as opportunity for making new friends. Residents can and often do discover new and unexpected personal growth.
Meaningful engagement in life: So much of our self worth is tied up in what we did in our career, caring for family, volunteering and much more. In retirement and our later years it is important to find ways to still be engaged in life, make a contribution to the community, have meaningful relationships and continue to grow as a person.
Grief and Loss: Throughout our lives we experience multiple losses. But as we age we encounter some of the most difficult: the death of a spouse or long term partner, our independence, purpose, and meaningful engagement.
Case Study: Robert
Robert (not his real name), was especially poignant. Robert came to our community just 6 months after his wife of 52 years died. Robert was developing dementia and struggling to make sense of daily life and to care for himself. His children brought him to our community for his safety as well as daily care. When I first met him he was confused and just couldn’t sort out what was happening. As we walked and talked he shared his confusion: “First my wife. Then they take my keys (to his car) and now this. What’s a guy supposed to do?” Robert’s world was fading away and he was powerless to do anything about it. Fortunately in our community Robert wasn’t alone to face a confusing reality he could no longer grasp. We couldn’t change what was happening but we were able to support him as his illness progressed and support his children as they confronted the loss of their father, even before death.
End of Life: Coming to terms with our mortality is perhaps the greatest of life’s challenges. Much of my work was with residents and families as they came to the end of life with its sorrow, decisions and finality. My role was to travel with them in that final life journey. While health care professions are structured around curing and fixing problems, a chaplain often must assist a resident or family in a situation that cannot be “cured” or “fixed”. Sometimes the best a chaplain can do is be present in the difficult, uncertain and ambiguous circumstance as a symbol of hope, grace, and love during a frightful experience. That presence of God’s love is often the most powerful tool in assisting with life’s losses.
Case Study: James
From many experiences one particular story comes to mind. James (not his real name) was 82 years old and very near the end of his earthly life. His wife would often spend hours a day at his bedside in our skilled nursing community. James could no longer speak and was often unable to respond to someone’s presence. I would often stop by and simply stand by his bed, hold his hand and offer a prayer for peace and grace. One day as I was doing so his wife, Jean, came in for her afternoon visit. We spoke for awhile and I left. James died a few days later and I was privileged to officiate at his memorial service.
Several years later as we passed in a hallway Jean stopped me and mentioned that day she came into his room when I was with him. She expressed deep appreciation for what I did for James at the end of his life – simply by being there and holding his hand. I had felt that what I was able to do for James wasn’t very important, but for Jean it meant something along with the presence of God’s love and grace.
Q3. Did you see any predictors of whether people will be able to stay happy as they age?
That is a tough one. I am not sure if there are any key indicators of whether one will be a jolly or melancholy elder. My sense is that the personality we form throughout our lives stays with us, unless a radical personality change is caused by medical, mental health issues, or developing dementia.
Case Study: George
One gentlemen, George, was a rather cantankerous and often bawdy, negative, and somewhat depressed kind of guy. (Deep down though he was a kind man totally devoted to his wife.) Many of our team members had difficulty connecting with this often a crabby, glass is empty kind of guy. No matter what they did nothing was right in George’s perspective. One day as he and I were talking he mentioned work. I asked what he did in his career. His answer shined a light on his personality. For over 40 years George was a trouble shooter for his company. He traveled the world solving problems, engineering solutions and fixing things that were wrong. Most of his life was focused on seeing what wasn’t working and trying to fix it. That definitely colored how he saw present circumstance. At that time his whole world was going wrong and he couldn’t fix it.
Having that information and understanding how he saw the world helped us understand him better, and for many of our team to better cope with his personality. We never were able to change his world view and many of his negative behaviors, but by working with George as he saw the world we were able to build strong and caring relationships. George wouldn’t say it, but his life got better when more of us traveled in his world.
Perhaps the real key is to accept people as they are and get to know them and how they came to their current place in life.
Q 4 Being a chaplain in a retirement community is an unusual role. What difference can a chaplain make there?
It is an unusual role in that most disciplines in a retirement community can be quantified to make an estimate of their value. Chaplaincy is more difficult to assess. Quantity of visits, classes led, services held can only give a glimpse of the meaning of the role of a chaplain. How does one measure a meaningful encounter and relationship out of 100 conversations?
In most retirement communities the boundaries of the chaplain’s role is determined by the administration. I was fortunate. In my 30 plus years at Judson Park I was blessed to have administrators and executive directors who saw the value of spiritual connection and insight for residents but also for the organization as well. Consequently I was given a lot of latitude to create the role and the freedom to let my philosophy of spiritual care dictate what I did.
Here are some core elements of that spiritual care philosophy:
*Develop strong personal relationships with residents, families and team members;
*Be a symbolic presence of the divine that brings love, grace and hope; reassuring that the divine is with them as well. More than once in counseling with someone who felt hopeless for their situation I told them that I would hope for them till they could hope for themselves. It helped to know they are not alone in their struggle.
*Being present in the painful, difficult and ambiguous experience was more important than having the right words to say, having the answers or fixing a problem.
*Supporting team members was equally important as supporting residents and families.
Identifying the value of a chaplain is difficult. Some studies show that chaplain’s can reduce the use of pain medications, frequency of nursing interventions for “problem” residents and have other quantifiable outcomes. However, the real value, I believe, is difficult to quantify.
Q 5. Based on your experiences what advice would you offer someone anticipating retirement?
-Don’t wait. Start planning now. Think about the kind of lifestyle you want and what it will take to achieve that.
-Be practical with finances, financial & estate planning, wills and trusts.
-Communicate what is important to you in retirement to your children or others who may be called upon to make decisions or implement your wishes if you cannot.
-Think about and communicate to your loved ones what medical interventions you do or don’t want at the end of life.
-Plan to be engaged in activities beyond work.
-Live life to the full starting now. We all know that anything and everything can change in an instant. Don’t take anyone or anything for granted. I firmly believe that if we give love, grace and hope it will be returned to us in greater measure. It may not always be true, but we do get out of life what we put into it.
-One important comment often heard in retirement living is: “We moved here because we didn’t want to be a burden for our children.” Often the children would gladly accept that burden. However, the more planning and pieces one can put in place before there is a crisis the better for everyone involved. By removing the stress families and loved ones were able to experience a more meaningful relationship.
Thanks Reverend Bill – your insights and experiences should be very helpful to the prospective retirees at topretirements.com!??
Comments? Have you thought about retiring to a CCRC or assisted living facility. Would you choose one that offers a chaplain? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.