It is a calling for the spiritually mature to serve and the less mature to grow.

Few people willingly visit convalescent hospitals and rest homes. Rarely does anyone enter such an establishment unless there is a close friend or relative within. Frequently the last stop before death, most patients are over 60, confined to wheelchairs or their beds, and many have lost touch with reality. Many patients have outlived their close friends and relatives and are all alone in the world. Others have families so busy with their own lives that they take time only rarely for the elderly inmate. The elderly often find themselves imprisoned by their ailing bodies and minds, condemned to live out a colorless existence within institutional walls.

Some progressive convalescent facilities do try to help those with still-active minds, and plan activities for those who can still get around. But staffs and funds are limited; the largest chunk of an institution’s budget must go for overhead (housing, laundry, food, staff salaries). Larger facilities usually hire a social director to oversee social functions, but in many smaller facilities this is handled by the administrator or a secretary. To a hospital administrator, church services are a social function, and unless owned by a church group, few convalescent facilities have their own chaplains.

In most communities, a few of the larger churches send teams to the local hospitals, usually the larger and “nicer” (cleaner and fancier) of the local facilities. Most of these have more than one denomination offering their services. A few denominations also send ministers or priests to visit their own patients. But many patients have no ties to any particular church, although they consider themselves Christians. Frequently they feel out of place at the worship service of another denomination.

The greatest need in all communities is for nondenominational services in the smaller facilities. But to minister effectively to people with a variety of religious backgrounds, and to prepare and conduct services wherein people of all denominations can feel comfortable, requires much thought and preparation.

Music is basic to a service in a convalescent hospital. Most facilities have a piano; some may even have an organ. When neither is available, the music may be tape recorded, and patients can sing along with it. Music is the key to bridging differences between churches. Old-time hymns that are familiar to nearly everyone are the best choices, and the elderly never tire of singing them. They bring back pleasant memories, and the hymns themselves have a healing quality. No one can sing those old songs without having them uplift their spirits.

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It is also simply practical to devote the first 20 to 30 minutes to music. The ministerial team quickly learns that rarely will all of the patients be in place waiting for them when they arrive; it usually takes several minutes for the nursing staff to wheel everyone in. It is also helpful if large-print songbooks are available, since many of the elderly cannot read fine print.

The minister should open the service with prayer following the music. It helps to unify the group by concluding this prayer with the Lord’s Prayer or the Twenty-third Psalm, which the group can pray aloud with the minister.

The message should be short (10 to 15 minutes), positive, and to the point. Like children, many of the elderly have a short attention span. Positive themes that are basic to all denominations should be chosen: God’s love for us, how to be more loving toward each other, how to pray, and so on. This is neither the place for theology, nor for presentations of dogma or pet doctrines. The speaker also may find the patients will wheel themselves out if they decide the talk is too long or too boring. Further, many of the elderly have hearing difficulties, so it is important to speak slowly and distinctly, and, of course, loud enough.

There should be a closing prayer or meditation, a final hymn, and prayer with each individual. (If someone requests laying on of hands, it should be done with a minimum of fuss before or during the final hymn.) A service following this format may be concluded in an hour or slightly more. A coffee hour may follow at the discretion of the ministers and hospital staff.

The two indispensible parts of the service are the music and the individual prayers at the end. The ministers and volunteers should make a special point of touching the patients, giving them a hug or holding their hands. Many feel alone and unloved, and therefore unlovable and untouchable. The physical contact reassures them that someone cares, and also that God cares.

Where does a church or a minister start in undertaking a regular nondenominational service at a convalescent hospital? A facility’s needs may come to the attention of a minister through a member, or perhaps as the result of a phone call from a desperate social director who has had a group cancel at the last minute. Or, a minister or volunteer may take the initiative and contact local hospitals. Someone should then go to the facility before the first service, interview the social director, tour the hospital, ascertain the availability of a piano, and set the day and time for the services.

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How many volunteers are needed for an effective convalescent hospital ministry depends upon several factors. The most important consideration is the number of patients who will normally be present at the services. In large facilities, they may number as many as 50, most of whom will be in wheelchairs. A majority will need help to find their places in the songbooks, and all will need to be encouraged to sing. It will usually take a minimum of three volunteers plus the pianist and the minister to keep the service moving smoothly. If the facility is small, the minister and a pianist can easily handle the service. In a board-and-care facility, where the elderly are more apt to be ambulatory and enthusiastic, the minister can conduct the service alone—especially if he or she can play the piano. The person in charge of the church’s program should take into consideration the number of volunteers regularly and dependably available, and look for a convalescent facility that can be handled comfortably.

The ministry to the elderly, the terminally ill, and the senile is a special ministry. It is also a ministry for the spiritually mature, for there are many people who cannot stand even to visit a convalescent hospital, and some find such a visit can make them physically ill. But for the few, the rewards are far out of proportion to the small amount of time actually invested. Wrinkled faces quickly become close friends and misshapen bodies are scarcely noticed, for those who minister are relating to real persons within those bodies. Not only is such a ministry an expression of divine love moving through a team of volunteers, but the warmth of new friendships returns blessings of that same divine love.

MARTHA J. MOHRINGMrs. Mohring is a minister with the Independent Church of Antioch in Rialto, California.

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