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Ministry reaches out to nursing home residents who feel church has forgotten them

May 30, 2012

Think of the Rev. Donna Hall as a kind of 21st century circuit riding preacher. There are some 50 nursing homes in the immediate vicinity of Palm Beach, Fla., and as chaplain of the North Palm Beach Deanery Nursing Home/Outreach to the Elderly ministry, Hall visits about 30 of them every month.

“I go every day, six days a week,” she said. “I always said God was calling me to work with those who thought the church had forgotten them. There’s no group of people who feel that more than those who are residents in facilities.”

The Rev. Donna Hall specialized in gerontology before she was called to the priesthood. That has served her well in her present ministry.

The ministry began in 1985 when the Rev. Jack Tucker recognized a need in northern Palm Beach County that wasn’t being met. The ministry grew quickly, and now includes all of Palm Beach and Martin counties. Hall has served as its director since her ordination in 2004.

The ministry, a longtime Jubilee Ministry, is funded by Episcopal churches in the area. The diocese of Southeast Florida recently was awarded a $1,000 diocesan development grant, which is going to help fund the nursing home ministry.

Nursing home residents present pastoral challenges

Hall, who has a bachelor’s degree in social work, specialized in gerontology before she was called to the priesthood. That has served her well in her present ministry. She acknowledges that working with nursing home residents can be a difficult challenge.

“If they’re just there short-term, churches are good about visiting them. But as time continues and as a person’s health deteriorates, church visitors and families have a harder time seeing someone they love going downhill,” Hall said. “It’s hard for me too, but it’s wonderful to be able to be with them and minister to them.”

Reaching dementia patients where they are

Hardest of all are the residents suffering from dementia, she said. “Because of my background, I make a special effort to go to Alzheimer’s units,” she said. “They so often are the ones that don’t receive any pastoral or spiritual care. I’ve preached while walking up and down or holding somebody’s hand. You adjust accordingly.”

She has some suggestions for others who minister to patients with dementia. “I try to enter where they’re at, as opposed to making them enter where I am,” she said. “If they’re in their childhood, then I just listen and let them talk to and let them resolve whatever’s going on. There’s no doubt in my mind I bring them comfort.”

The needs of nursing home residents are as varied as their individual circumstances, but Hall sees some commonalities, too. One of the chief complaints is pain when family members or church friends don’t visit them.

Not afraid to die – but afraid they want to

The other concerns dying. “It’s not that they’re afraid to die,” she said. “It’s that they want to. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is ‘Why hasn’t the Lord taken me? I’m ready to go.’ I respond that the Lord is the Lord, He is with us and loves us, and even though the world may think we can’t do much, we’re still disciples of the Lord with our smiles, our prayers and our sharing. When they stop and think about it, they find somewhat of a purpose, even in the manner in which they’re existing now, and they can be at peace about it.”

Hall encourages other dioceses, parishes and ministries to consider being intentional in their ministry with the aged. It’s a ministry that doesn’t require ordination, though it does take a calling to serve the elderly.

For advice on how to start such a ministry, and pitfalls to avoid, contact Hall. She’s delighted to be a resource. Call her at 561-312-7382 or email her at jdlsb@bellsouth.net.

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