How is your Church caring for the elderly?

Many of us are rightly shocked and horrified by the news this past week of the abuse of elderly residents in a care home just outside Belfast. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Older People’s investigation into the care home found that residents had been living in “appalling circumstances”, finding evidence of “inhumane and degrading treatment”.

It’s hard to comprehend how people who are too fragile to care for themselves can be treated with so little value, dignity and respect. Instances like these leave us angry because they run completely counter to clear calls in Scripture to care for widows and the vulnerable, to honour our parents and to look after our neighbours. Beyond this specific story, there are also serious questions to be raised about the regulations, policies and culture which can allow situations like this to exist.

It is also important to remember that this is an exception to the countless examples to be celebrated of care homes and carers who daily go above and beyond in their compassionate support of elderly residents in their care.

This is not a time for a knee-jerk reaction from the Church but it could be an important moment to consider how local Churches could begin to build even better relationships with local care homes.

We asked Tina English, Director of Embracing Age and founder of Care Home Friends, about how Christians could respond well in a moment like this…

 

Tina, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how Care Home Friends came about?

I have had a God-given heart for older people for as long as I can remember. I trained as a nurse many years ago and spent some time working in a care home. Following a career break to raise 3 children I worked in the third sector for charities supporting older people, setting up projects for the lonely and isolated.
Three years ago I set up a Christian charity, Embracing Age, with a heart to demonstrate God's love in practical ways to the oldest and frailest in our society. It seemed to me that care home residents were amongst the most overlooked and ignored older people in our nation and this is backed up by research which shows that older people in care homes are twice as likely to feel severely lonely as older people living in the community.
We started in the London Borough of Richmond, training volunteers to spend time and build friendship with residents and then God gave us a bigger vision. There are about 17,500 care homes for older people across the UK and over 50,000 churches. Our vision is to see every care home adopted by a local church with trained volunteers befriending residents. In Northern Ireland there are about 450 care homes and about 2000 churches! It only needs 1 in 4 churches in NI to get involved for residents of every care home to be impacted.

 

How does your faith shape your work in this area?

God has broken my heart for the frail elderly, particularly care home residents. I am constantly reminded that each resident I meet is a unique individual dearly loved by their Father in heaven, who sees beyond their frailty, beyond their physical or cognitive decline to the beautiful child He created and adores. This is what inspires and motivates me and is at the heart of all we do.

 

Could you share something about why you believe that Churches have an important role to play in the care of older people in their communities?

I believe our work demonstrates to the world in a very practical way the unconditional nature of God loves - it's not dependent on what we can give or do, but on who He is. He freely lavishes His love on the most vulnerable in our society and He does it through us. 
And in a remarkable way, Jesus says that whatever we do for the least of these brothers and sisters, we do for Him, or as The Message puts it: "Whatever you did for someone overlooked and ignored, that was me - you did it to me!" What an awesome privilege that is.

 

How can Churches better support the frail elderly in their congregations and beyond?

The first thing we need to do is value the older generation the way God values them. Even in church culture, where we have rotas to fill, it's easy to be influenced by the idea that people's value is in what they can do or give. It simply isn't.
Secondly we need to start asking our frail elderly questions and listening to their answers - how would they feel better supported? Are there gaps in provision for them? We don't want to make assumptions about what people's needs are and how they would like these needs to be met.
Then look further - who are the frail elderly who don't have a voice, who aren't there to be asked what their needs are and how best they can be met? This is true of care home residents, so often overlooked and ignored.
Then look at your own resources as a church and prayerfully consider the appropriate response for you - a weekly lunch club might seem like a great idea, but if you don't have the manpower it may not be a great idea for you. But Care Home Friends may be a good option - it only needs 2 or 3 people with an hour a week to spare to get going.  You don't even all have to be free at the same time. We provide all the training and support you need. 

 

Finally, how could a Church in Northern Ireland begin to explore a connection with their local care home or Care Home Friends?

If you want to explore a connection with your local care home I would encourage you to contact us, so that we can help and support you. There's a danger that after reading the awful stories from Dunmurry Manor Care Home that we paint all care homes with the same brush, and have a negative attitude towards the care home we want to adopt. Our ethos is that we very much value and support the hard work of care staff. We see our role as coming alongside to support and do the things that carers just don't have time for. We can sit and chat with a resident for an hour, or have a game of scrabble. It's so important that care home staff know we are there to support, not to find fault, which is why we recommend volunteers go through our training (which only takes a morning) to prepare them for the Care Home environment.
At the same time start praying for your local care home - pray for the residents and the staff and allow God to show you His heart for them.
If you already run a service in a local care home that is a great start, as connections are established. We are encouraging churches to take that a step further by having trained volunteers who visit on a weekly basis to befriend residents.

If you would like to know more please visit our website www.carehomefriends.org.uk or email tina@embracingage.org.uk