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Ministry to nursing homes: Don’t wait til you’re in one

CENTREVILLE, Ala. (BP)–In the last 17 years, retired Baptist pastor E.C. Day of Clanton, Ala., and his wife, Lois, have made more than 800 trips to the Bibb Medical Center Nursing Home in Centreville. Many people of Day’s generation would have long since ended the weekly 75-mile round trip.

But Day, 85, said he and his wife, 80, “are not doing this for ourselves.”

“The nursing home ministry has been our life for many years and will continue to be until God calls us home.”

Day is one of many Baptists who give their time to nursing home ministry. He and others say the best gift they have to give — and the one appreciated most — is the gift of time.
“Some patients think they have been put in the nursing home and forgotten about,” said Leonard Nail, director of nursing home ministries for the East Cullman (Ala.) Baptist Association. “When you visit, they realize someone really does care about them.”

Nail has been a leading Bible study at Hanceville Nursing Home and Woodland Village Nursing Home since his retirement from Veteran’s Hospital in Birmingham nearly 18 years ago. He also visits other local nursing homes when he has time.
Nail encourages others not to let “busy-ness” be an excuse for not visiting. “This is a fast-going world,” he said. “Many people say they don’t have time to visit. My response to that is, Don’t wait until you get in the nursing home to say, ‘I wish I had visited.'”

Day, who also leads Bible study and worship at a nursing home in his hometown, has a similar response to those who shun nursing homes. “Some preachers and deacons say it is too depressing to visit those in the nursing home,” he said. “I ask them what they will think if they have to live in a nursing home someday.”

Day said the response of patients is all the reason he needs to continue his ministry, noting, “Many residents have told us that worship is the best activity they have in the nursing home.”

In fact, ministry programs are some of the most popular volunteer programs in all nursing homes, said Lynn Childs, director of public relations director for the Alabama Nursing Home Association.

“The patients love singing, Bible study and pretty much anything to do with religion,” Childs said. “We also find that the religious community is one of the strongest supporters that staff and facilities have as far as volunteering and doing things for residents.”

Vertie Perry, a resident of Cleburne County Nursing Home in Heflin, Ala., said the singing is her favorite part of worship services held at the nursing home.

“I could listen to good singing all day,” Perry said.
Minnie Morrow, another resident at the Cleburne County facility, said she never attended church regularly before coming to the nursing home. “Now it is one of my favorite activities,” she said.

Bridget Pope, activities director at the nursing home, said residents look forward to worship activities each week and enjoy the services, regardless of denomination.

“It doesn’t matter what denomination they are or whether they are black or white,” Pope said. “The residents just really enjoy worshiping and appreciate anyone who takes time to visit.”

“It is God’s will that people should have company,” said Eva Jarrell, a resident at the Cleburne County facility. “As long as they’re not drunk or cussing, we are glad to have them.”

Many people, Christians included, shy away from nursing home visitation because of the age of the patients and the prospect of death. But the nursing home is a good mission field and the patients are usually receptive to the gospel, workers said.

At the Cleburne County Nursing Home, several patients have been saved and baptized in the last few years, Pope said. She told of one elderly man who, as a result of a stroke, could not speak. He could understand, however, and communicated with others through hand signals. “One morning he told someone at the devotional that he wanted to be saved,” Pope said.

They’ve even had a baptism in a bathtub. Another resident was saved but died before he could be baptized.

Death is a real part of nursing home ministry, Day said. “You have to realize that you may not have a long time to reach the patients,” he said. “They may not be at the nursing home that long.”

Fortunately, the nature of nursing home ministry helps ministers and other volunteers deal with the death of a patient.

“It’s easier to deal with the death of patients when you’ve gotten to know them through Bible study and know they are Christians,” Nail said.

For those considering a nursing home ministry, Nail said commitment is very important.

“It’s very important to be there on a regular basis,” he said. Many of the 30 or so participants in Nail’s Bible study often greet him at the front door when he arrives. And they expect him to be there. “One day I wasn’t able to go so I sent my pastor in my place,” Nail said. “One of the ladies, who has been in the nursing home nearly 16 years and comes to Bible study regularly, got up to leave. She said if the pastor wasn’t there, she wasn’t staying.”

For those who are apprehensive about visiting a nursing home, Nail said the best way to get started is to relate to the patient’s family and friends. He told of one young man who was worried he would not know what to say. As they went from room to room, the young man introduced himself and several patients knew the boy’s parents and grandparents. Making conversation was no problem.

Children also are welcome visitors, Nail added. “It makes the patients so happy to see a little child. They want to reach out and hug them and talk to them. You can see their eyes sparkle,” he said.

Jarrell agreed, “Children are wonderful, and it means more than all the money in the world when they come to visit.”

As in any area of ministry, nursing home ministers also get discouraged. Nail said he sometimes wonders if he is making a difference. But he said the Lord reminds him almost daily that his visits are important.

Recently a woman came up to Nail in the grocery store and introduced herself. She told him how much she and her family appreciated Nail’s visits to her father in the nursing home.

Nail said that even the smallest response is rewarding.
“Many of the residents can’t speak, but you can talk to them. They hear what you say even if they can’t respond,” he said. “You can see a smile, or something in their eyes, and you know you are making a difference.”

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  • Carrie Brown McWhorter