Chaplains have been a mainstay at hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and assisted living communities. Their goal is to meet the spiritual needs of patients, families, caregivers, and staff. But rehab and assisted living facilities often do not employ chaplains and they rely on community clergy or clergy organizations to meet the needs of residents
Chaplains who serve these facilities possess a unique compassion and face emotional challenges during the best of times. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has lingered, they have encountered even higher hurdles.
The Somerset Chaplaincy to the Elderly, headquartered in Somerville, NJ, is an organization that fills the spiritual needs of residents in nine Somerset County, NJ care facilities that do not have staff chaplains. The chaplaincy recognizes “that people transitioning from their homes to care facilities often feel, not only the loss of familiarity, but also the loss of community worship, especially when attending their hometown house of worship is often difficult or impossible.”
The Reverend Sharon Johnson, Somerset Chaplaincy’s administrator and a chaplain herself, recalls simpler times when she and her peers could conduct religious services for groups of residents in large rooms within facilities. She notes that traditionally, many chaplains have been welcomed as family among relatives of the seniors they serve. And when residents have passed on, their deaths have affected those chaplains as well. But the sorrow of not being able to maintain a physical presence with seniors, their families and the staff that serve residents, has only intensified under COVID-19 pandemic conditions.
“Residents are longing for that connection,” Reverend Johnson says. “We had always set up regular activities weekly, but with some residents, especially those that have no living family members, that was all the social contact they received for the entire week. I can only estimate from the experience of working with residents that now they may feel abandoned.”
“That (feeling of loss) is probably truer in people with various levels of memory loss,” says Reverend Johnson. “People who are more cognizant might be able to cope better with this change. But for others, it is devastating. And things are taking a toll on (facility) staff as well. The impact of someone dying, having death around at all times, and having the anxiety that accompanies this virus, leaves them in need of spiritual care.”
How has the chaplaincy adjusted?
When a person in assisted living or a rehab center used to appear discouraged, staff might have called for a chaplain to spend time with them. Sometimes, all that might be needed was a 1-on-1 visit and a compassionate ear. Chaplains would also step up to help families cope with the death of loved ones and to lead celebrations of life, times when the need for human contact and support is so important. But with COVID-19 social distancing restrictions in place, chaplains often cannot come on site; they are often classified as “visitors” without access to residents. That forces creativity in finding ways to reach out and that usually includes an assist from technology.
Chaplains with Somerset Chaplaincy who have technical skills are recording audio/video religious services and sending those recordings to the facility via electronic means. Staff members may then take a laptop room-to-room for viewing by residents. However, some facilities don’t have the technical infrastructure in place to distribute such recordings and may lack the staff and computers to bring such presentations to resident rooms. Additionally, there are many seniors who don’t possess the technical capability to view presentations on their phones, laptops or even televisions.
“One of our chaplains will Skype some residents for 1-on-1 conversations,” Reverend Johnson says. “Others do Zoom calls. But even with Zoom calls, residents can’t gather in rooms to be in front of a screen, and many rooms are not equipped with effective computer connections. Another of our chaplains was able to get by technological limitations by holding a ‘celebration of life’ service with a small gathering in the outside courtyard of a facility.”
The chaplaincy is putting their heads together to determine each facility’s ability to host virtual chats as a means to combat loneliness. Reverend Johnson says her organization feels bad that they need to enlist so much help from staff who already have so many responsibilities due to the pandemic, but most have been helpful.
Chaplains are evolving
The Harvard Divinity School has taken stock of the changing nature of chaplaincy amidst the pandemic. An article on the school’s website called Chaplaincy at a Distance: The Art of Spiritual Care During COVID-19 states “there are aspects to remote chaplaincy that signify a kind of artistry through technology.”
Cheryl Giles and Chris Berlin, who teach the Harvard Divinity School class “Compassionate Care of the Dying: Buddhist Trainings and Techniques,” note that for those who are dying alone, the lack of contact or inability to grieve with others, as posed by physical distancing, bring incredible challenges.
“Being a companion in a time of grieving through a screen or a phone may offer some comfort,” they say. “Deep listening and conversation about meaningful things can happen. Nevertheless, the growing edges and opportunities posed by this time of pandemic do make us question whether a deeply felt presence is possible at a distance.”
Giles also notes that as grief continues to be the new normal, the duo are aware of the suffering of people who have experienced longstanding disparities, such as immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinx.
“During this pandemic, their inequality has been magnified by the sheer number of deaths across the country,” Giles says. “For many of us, it’s too painful to turn away. We can use this time to be fully present and ask ourselves: What is my work in the world?”
The Somerset Chaplaincy is also evolving with the times. Their chaplains are reaching out to activities directors at facilities to explain what services they can bring to residents and staff. They’re even going back to some older ways, like giving residents and staff their personal phone numbers, and creating flyers with prayers and other information can be referred to in times of need.
And the chaplains and administrative directors are stepping up their support of one to another. They meet monthly and they, too, talk about their feelings and stressors with spiritual directors and advisors who can help reinvigorate their coping skills.
Lippincott Nursing Center
The Role of the Chaplain in the Interdisciplinary Care of the Rehabilitation Patient.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.
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