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home : features : parish life

12/7/2017 9:00:00 AM
PASTORAL CARE
Volunteers are needed to be 'face of Jesus' for homebound
SENIORS IN TWO COUNTIES
BENEFIT FROM ‘WINGS OF CARE’
BY KATE BLAIN
EDITOR


Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptist, Orthodox and more participate in the Wings of Care ministry founded by Sister Augusta Ann "Gussie" Burgess, CSJ, to serve the elderly and homebound in southern Washington County and northern Rensselaer County.

It's not enough.

"I have about 20 volunteers," Sister Gussie told The Evangelist. "I could use at least 10 more."

The pastoral care minister has a waiting list of senior citizens who need volunteers to visit them. There's a particular need in the Salem area, said Sister Gussie, where many older Catholics live out on farms.

Sister Gussie will take any help she can get. She said some younger Catholics could do odd jobs like washing windows for a senior, but may be reluctant to volunteer because they're only free for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.

"Even that's acceptable," she said, noting that all volunteers are background-checked for the safety of the people they visit.

Wings of Care came about after Sister Gussie answered an ad for a pastoral care coordinator to serve St. Patrick's parish in Cambridge and Holy Cross in Salem. She had just retired from her work as a speech pathologist for children and thought it would be good to work with "the other end of the rainbow."

The ministry soon blossomed into a larger, ecumenical effort. Sister Gussie begins by visiting each elderly person herself, assessing what's needed and what state-sponsored services she may be able to connect the person with: transportation to medical appointments, help with heating bills or Meals on Wheels delivery, for example.

In addition, Sister Gussie talks about what Wings of Care volunteers can do. One senior wanted someone to play cards with; another wanted to attend her granddaughter's wedding, but relatives couldn't care for her and participate in the wedding, so she got some help.

Volunteers may do light housekeeping, bring seniors out to lunch or to concerts and school plays, read newspapers or favorite magazines to them, or take them grocery shopping. Some volunteers run errands like taking mail to the Post Office or picking up prescriptions.

"Isolation, that's what there is," Sister Gussie said, echoing what other pastoral care ministers told The Evangelist: As family members move away, the elderly are often left struggling to do basic chores and find opportunities to socialize.

Sister Gussie has taken many elderly and homebound people on tours of local nursing homes and senior living facilities.

"We like to keep the elderly in their homes as long as possible, but when it becomes unsafe, we call in the troops," she said. But "it's very difficult for them to leave their homes."

Sister Gussie brought one couple to look at a nursing home in Cambridge when the husband was using a wheelchair and the wife, a walker. The man looked at the clean and welcoming facility and wept: "You're telling me that my whole life is reduced to one room, a bathroom and a sunroom."

The couple insisted on staying in their home until he died.

Sister Gussie believes that "the potential is out there" to find enough volunteers to help out all the seniors in need. Pastoral care volunteers are indeed the face of God, she said.

"I hope we are representative of God, whom we serve. I trust we are. Some of our folks say, 'I thought my Church had forgotten all about me.' They need us."

(To volunteer, call St. Patrick's parish in Cambridge, 518-677-2757, or email pastoralcare@battenkillcatholic.org.)

For the homebound, Christmas is not "the most wonderful time of the year."

In fact, every day is "a long, quiet day when you're by yourself," said Linda Banker, pastoral associate for pastoral care at St. Henry's parish in Averill Park. "People think, 'Oh, they can read; they can watch TV,' but seniors often don't see or hear as well" as they once could.

Harley McDevitt is diocesan director of pastoral care ministry through the Albany Diocesan Cemeteries office. She told The Evangelist that "the winter months are really hard on our homebound. [They're] isolated, inactive, discouraged, lonely, and some are even depressed."

Pastoral care ministers in the Albany Diocese are pleading for more people to call their parishes and volunteer to visit the elderly, ill and homebound. Several priests featured in a series of videos on the Diocese's YouTube channel said they could use the help. Clergy and laypeople agreed that the biggest problem among the elderly today is isolation.

"The reality is, we're living longer and there are more pastoral care needs all the time," said Rev. Geoffrey Burke, who is pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Latham and chaplain for retired Sisters of St. Joseph at nearby St. Joseph's Provincial House.

Already, he said in a video interview, there are five senior residences in the area covered by his parish and another under construction down the street.

Scattered seniors
"Pastoral care is important," added Rev. David Mickiewicz, pastor of St. Mary's in Oneonta, in his video interview. In rural areas of his community, "we're scattered. People are isolated. We need to go out to others who can't come in" to church.

Mrs. Banker has been doing pastoral care ministry at St. Henry's since 2000 and served other parishes before that. She said that younger generations today tend to move away from the towns where they grew up. Adult children love their parents, but are often unavailable for more than weekend or vacation visits -- especially if they have children of their own.

As a result, senior citizens "can be pretty isolated," Mrs. Banker said. "It's important for them to know their Church remembers them."

Pastoral care or "visitation" ministers try to bring "the essence of the Church" to people who can't participate anymore, she said. Sometimes, that means bringing communion, but it can also be a friendly visit just to chat. Mrs. Banker makes sure all the homebound get cards personally signed by Rev. Tom Holmes, pastor of St. Henry's -- not just at Christmas, but on other holidays, too.

Mrs. Banker recalled one parishioner whose wife was disabled: He was homebound by virtue of her illness until she passed away. For people in situations like that, volunteers call and visit, help in arranging services like Meals on Wheels if necessary and let the pastor know when a visit from him would be appreciated.

Face of parish
"You're the face of your parish," Mrs. Banker said of the visitation volunteers. "You're the face of Jesus Christ to these people. You don't have to be a paragon of virtue to do this; you just have to have a good heart."

At Christ the King parish in Westmere, Albany, pastoral care coordinator Kathy Kavanaugh arranges for meals to be delivered to homebound parishioners at Christmastime, as well as breads and cards made by children in the parish.

But more volunteers are always needed. Ms. Kavanaugh described one parishioner who recently passed away: A pastoral care volunteer had become an integral part of the woman's life, visiting once a week and, when the senior went into a nursing home, stopping by to check that she was receiving good care and speaking with family members.

At the end, the volunteer also made sure her final wishes were respected, so the woman "had a lovely funeral," Ms. Kavanaugh said.

Connection to Church
Fathers Burke and Holmes both made the point in their video interviews that pastoral care means more than visiting someone who's sick or isolated.

Establishing a connection, said Father Burke, means that, when the person dies, the parish can be there for the grieving family. Father Holmes met one young man at a parishioner's funeral who was so touched by the experience, he completed the RCIA process and joined the Catholic Church.

"It's the human contact that is important," said Mrs. Banker. "Just providing that constant knowledge that someone cares. There's no better way to spend your time" than taking an hour or two to visit someone in need.

Besides, said Father Holmes, "pastoral care ministry gets down to what we're supposed to be all about."

(Go to the Albany Diocese's channel on www.youtube.com and click on "playlists" to watch interviews with pastors and pastoral care ministers. To volunteer with pastoral care ministry, call your parish or the diocesan Pastoral Care Commission at 518-641-6818.)





FINANCIAL WOES
Kathy Kavanaugh, pastoral care coordinator at Christ the King parish in Westmere, Albany, noted that many senior citizens are also struggling financially now.

"When they were saving for retirement, things were reasonable," she said. But costs, particularly for health care and medications, have risen so much that "unless they saved a lot -- which most of them didn't -- now they have to watch [their spending] so carefully.

"It exacerbates the isolation" when seniors are afraid to leave home because gas and outings cost more than they can afford, she said. "There are people who fall through the cracks."

Like other pastoral care ministers, Ms. Kavanaugh tries to arrange for seniors to get services they qualify for, from heating assistance to SNAP (food stamps). At this time of year, said all the pastoral care ministers interviewed, parish "giving trees" and other forms of aid are also important.
(KB)





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