Prologue: When I first volunteered to be part of a small team who takes Communion to a local nursing home, I worried that this might not be my kind of thing. What if I do it wrong? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I forget to say something important? I was assured by a friend that this particular ministry would surprise me. And it has. Many months and several bloopers later, I realize that this is not about the impact I have on the residents, but rather the impact I allow them to have on me. What follows are snapshots of the people I have been blessed to know. Names have been changed with respect for their privacy.
Today the nursing homes smells of baby powder – a different and welcome fragrance in the sterile halls. As usual, my first stop is the Alzheimer’s Ward. I find Nell and we commence the same conversation we have every month.
“Hi there, Nell. I’m Lori from St. Mary’s. I came to bring you Holy Communion. May I pray with you today?”
Nell lights up like a child at Christmas. “Oh that is so KIND of you!! Thank you so much for thinking of me. You say you go to St. Mary’s? I used to go to St. Mary’s too, a long time ago…”
She begins to ask me about friends from her past. “Do you know Mr. and Mrs. So-And-So?”
I reply that I have not had the pleasure of meeting the So-And-Sos, and she informs me that they have passed already. In return, I ask if she remembers Al and Lula Mae Zern who also went to St. Mary’s long ago.
“Oh yes!! Lula Zern is such a sweetheart! How are she and Al doing?”
I break the news gently that the Zerns have passed on as well, but Nell rejoices when I tell her that I am married to their grandson. We talk for a few more minutes about the past and make our small connections to each other’s present. After we have prayed, she always tells me what a blessing it is that I stopped by, and how grateful she is that I took the time to bring her Communion. Today she holds my hand for a second longer, looks right into my eyes and repeats, “I really am so grateful. I cannot thank you enough for visiting me.”
Her gratitude makes it hard to leave. I think this is why I visit her first. Were it not for the six other souls that I need to see on this Sunday morning, I might just sit and visit with Nell all day, even if just to have the same conversation over and over again.
I usually find Beth sitting by herself, quiet and comfortable in her dark blue wheelchair. The first time I took Holy Communion to her she was spritely, her eyes dancing with the slightest hint of mischief.
I had approached her and asked quietly, “Are you Beth?”
“Maybe I am and maybe I’m not. That’s for YOU to find out!” Her eyes danced again as I recalled being warned about her dementia. Throughout the bible reading and the prayers that morning she seemed to mock me. Maybe it was my imagination – I was so uncomfortable being there on my own, looking for strangers and praying with them aloud in front of other people. I wasn’t quite sure how to take Beth’s demeanor. She tolerated my presence that day and seemed indifferent to my mission. I carried on, promising at the end of my visit that I would see her next time.
As the months passed I finally got better at spotting her in the crowd, and I started to look forward to our brief visits. She is often smiling and thoughtful, though always on the quiet side. Sometimes her nails are painted the prettiest pink color, and every once in a while she is wearing lipstick.
We now have a routine that I treasure. I approach and tell her who I am and why I am there. She smiles, sometimes with sincere welcome and sometimes with a little bit of that mischief I met on the first day. I read the Gospel to her and then I hold her hand and begin to pray. Half-way through the Our Father her expression relaxes and we fall into a gentle cadence, memory and faith guiding her own words. “Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses…”
It buoys my spirit to hear her praying along with me, knowing that somewhere deep inside of her these words were written on her heart a long time ago. Her soul seems soothed after we pray, and she thanks me each time after receiving Communion. Her smile is so gentle and sincere that I no longer worry about her dementia. I am assured of her peace each time I leave her.
On my very first trip to this nursing home I noticed an elderly lady wandering the halls. She carried a Bible tucked in the crook of her elbow and she seemed to search longingly for something or someone. I assumed she was another Sunday visitor bringing the Good News to some shut-ins. Dressed in low heels, a simple plaid dress and with her hair tied back in a conservative bun, she seemed very put-together despite the fact that she shuffled her feet just a bit when she walked.
“Can you help me?” she finally asked me after we had passed each other about four times in the hallway.
“I’ll sure try,” I offered, knowing I would most likely fail at this mission but hoping I had read enough name plates on doors to be of some viable assistance.
“I can’t find my room. They keep moving it. It’s never in the same place. I’m Ella. Ella Smith. Oh, where have they put my room??”
I was stunned to realize that she was a resident. I tried to get her to recall her room number, but that was no use, so I offered that we could ask a nurse.
“Ohhhhh no. They don’t like me asking too much. They get mad at me for losing my room all the time.”
“Well then, we’ll go ask together. Don’t worry about a thing, Miss Ella. We’ll find your room.”
As we approached the nurses’ station Ella hung back a bit, allowing me to walk in front of her so I could take the brunt of the rebuttal she fully expected. I put on my sweetest smile and asked the nurse if she could tell me where to find Miss Ella Smith’s room.
Without speaking to me, the nurse looked past my shoulder at Ella. “Ms. Smith, have you lost your room again?!! You know it’s down this hall (pointing). Room 130, Ms. Smith. Go on, now.”
Miss Ella looked like she was being sent to time-out. I turned to her, fnally understanding why she was a bit timid about asking for her room number…again. And together, we walked oh-so-slowly down the hall to Room 130. When we arrived at her door, I had to grin. There was a HUGE pink posterboard decorated with streamers taped to her door. In large cheery polka-dotted letters the poster read, “Ella Smith – Room 130.”
“Looks like we found it, Miss Ella,” I said. “We were just in the wrong hall earlier.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you!!” As she disappeared into the doorway, I heard her say, “God bless you, ma’am.”
Um, yes…about that…He just did.