By: Julie Schaaf
My first call to ministry was to serve as the chaplain of the Foothills Presbyterian Retirement Community in Easley, SC. At the time, I was one of five chaplains in our five separate Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC) located throughout the state of South Carolina. It was a rewarding call and a beautiful experience, but after 15 years of service, I felt called to parish ministry.
As the chaplain, one of the things I often discovered was the lack of resources available to help families make informed decisions about the care of their loved ones as they age. “How do we know when it is time for our parent to have help?” “How much does it cost?” “What are our options?” “What signs do we look for when we are with them that they might need help?” “Is there a difference between living alone and being lonely?” I found myself being asked such questions by family members on a daily basis. There was also a high level of frustration about where to turn to get help for these options.
My rule of thumb is this: There comes a time when the best we can hope for our loved one is that she will receive safety, dignity and love 24 hours a day. If you are not in the position to provide these things personally, the best way to give them love is to help them make the decision to move to a place where they receive safety and dignity from others in your absence. Yet this is a rather simplistic answer to a complex question.
In January 2014, the five chaplains from the Presbyterian Communities of South Carolina were awarded a Lilly Grant in conjunction with Columbia Theological Seminary based on a proposal to reignite spiritual compassion in ourselves and in our residents. As a part of fulfilling the service component for this grant, we published a booklet, along with the financial support of the Foothills Presbytery Mission Team that seeks to answer some of these questions. The booklet was entitled, “Where Do We Go from Here?” and is a resource on senior adult ministry. It is divided into four parts: Where do we go from here, which addresses general questions such as the ones I posed above; Alzheimer’s and Dementia; End of Life Issues; and Keeping the Church Connected to Seniors. The booklet concludes with a helpful Resource/Glossary. A copy was made available to every congregation in Foothills Presbytery and is also available in the Presbytery Resource Center.
However, from personal experience I can tell you that the main thing our aging church members need is to feel connected and useful. They want to know that they still have value as a member of the Body of Christ. Any way a congregation can stay connected to those who no longer find themselves able to attend church on a regular basis is key. This can range from the obvious—providing rides to worship, Bible study, circle meetings and other events—to having them head up the prayer chain or make items that are needed for children’s Sunday School lessons or mission projects. Older adults also love interaction with young people so any event that brings the two together is welcome. And not just at Christmas or Valentine’s Day, but all year long.
However, the most precious gift you can give an older adult in your congregation is the gift of time. As a chaplain, I was once asked to sum up my job in one word and I answered that I was a “storycatcher”. And as a storycatcher, I have heard about marriages that failed because of infidelity. I have cried with someone who walked in on her mother being abuse and suddenly remembered the abuse that she, too, had suffered as a child but had buried it so deeply as a way of dealing with her pain. As a storycatcher I have held someone at the grave of her father as she wept with regret that she had not come to visit more often. I have held someone’s hand as they confessed a shameful sin before their death. I have listened to someone recount the horrors of child sexual abuse, more than one time.
On the other hand, I have gained so much wisdom as a storycatcher by listening to seniors recount the way things used to be! Imagine having someone who has lived 106 years tell you what the most important thing that was invented in her lifetime is or what you could gain from the retired school principal if you ask about his favorite students or important events in his career.
As we age and lose our abilities, our friends, and even our memories, it is our call as members of the Body of Christ to remind each part of the body that they still have value and are a beautiful child of God, created in God’s image. “Even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” Isaiah 46:3.
The Rev. Julie Carter Schaaf is a Greenville, South Carolina native and grew up at John Knox Presbyterian Church, where her family still worships. She is a 1981 graduate of Clemson University with a degree in Modern Languages and received her Master of Divinity from Erskine Theological Seminary in 1999. Julie is currently serving as the pastor of Nazareth Presbyterian Church in Moore, SC. Previously, she served as the chaplain at the Foothills Presbyterian Retirement Community in Easley for fifteen years. Julie also enjoys leading retreats, speaking to various groups and teaching at other churches. She has served on several committees for the Foothills Presbytery, including a term as Moderator of the Presbytery. She is currently serving as Chair of the Committee on Ministry. Julie’s husband, Danny, is a general contractor in Greenville. Their daughter Katie and her husband Bryan have two beautiful sons, Hayden and Douglas. Their son Carter is married to the former Catie Smith. They are blessed that all of their family lives in Greenville and worships at John Knox.