COLUMBIA — One thing Jerry Riggert has done as chaplain at Lenoir Woods is give residents more opportunities to make spiritual connections in their lives. He set up dial-a-devotion, a hot line residents can call to hear his recorded voice giving a two minute devotional. The recording is updated three times a week.
The hot line is just one of the ways that Columbia nursing home residents can get spiritual guidance when they can't always leave the facility. Visiting chaplains, worship services led by religious groups and Bible studies on location also help to keep residents connected to their faith.
Lenoir Woods is the only continuing care retirement community and nursing home in Columbia with a full-time chaplain on staff. The community is run by Lutheran Senior Services, a nonprofit, faith-based organization. Employees at Lenoir Woods hold firm to the conviction that communities with a full-time chaplain can address an added component: the spiritual needs of residents. A 2006 Gallup poll found 72 percent of adults age 65 and older said religion was "very important" in their lives.
Laura Christisen, activities director at The Bluffs, said residents who express their faith and say they believe in an afterlife have a more positive outlook on life.
A 12-year study published in Yale Medicine in 1998 showed that elderly people who participate in religious services are less likely to engage in risky health behaviors, have stronger support systems and an improved emotional well-being.
In an effort to make the transition to a nursing home easier, Christisen said potential residents at The Bluffs are asked about a ministerial preference. If there are problems, then the staff can contact ministers or church members if the resident needs visits or spiritual guidance.
If the resident has no particular preference, the staff also asks whether he or she would like a visit from David Jones, a visiting chaplain from Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia.
Sally Robinson is another visiting chaplain for nursing homes in Columbia. She facilitates Communion services, Bible studies, hymn singing, devotions and visits at seven retirement facilities as part of the newly formed Columbia Area Older Adult Ministries. The ministry began in January after a denominational program ended its older adult ministry, she said.
Robinson is a former chaplain at Lenoir Woods and said she has a long-standing appreciation for older people and what they have to offer. Much of her work now is keeping up with visits.
"I would say that 95 percent of (my) time is listening to stories," she said. Once she arrives for a nursing home visit, it usually takes her a while to leave because so many people want to talk to her, she said.
When she visits a resident who is no longer able to communicate verbally, she often feels that they realize who she is, even if they cannot verbally express it. Robinson said knowing that the residents she cares for are ready to die and be with God helps her through the grieving process.
"It's a blessing that they allowed me to be a part of their lives — especially at the end of their lives," she said.
Riggert provides monthly memorial services for Lenoir Woods residents who have died, and is available to minister to employees. But the biggest part of his job as a full-time chaplain involves leading Bible studies, including one based on “The Andy Griffith Show;" providing opening prayers at activities; coordinating church group visits; calling religious officials throughout Columbia at the request of residents; and providing another ear for residents who want to talk.
“I enjoy hearing someone explaining success and he (Riggert) does a good job of that,” said resident Margaret Hauschild.
Hauschild said she attended the first “Mayberry Bible Study” at the Health Care Center because she wanted to learn more about it. Participants watched an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” and then were asked questions about how the characters and storyline portrayed different ideas demonstrated in the Bible. Hauschild plans to continue attending the weekly Bible study, which is one of the many faith-based activities offered each week.
Hauschild makes it a point to go to every church service that Lenoir schedules; there is a regularly scheduled service at 3:30 p.m. every Sunday.
“You never know when you’re going to get a germ of an idea that will expand your idea of God,” said Hauschild.
Robinson said she has found from her experiences that older adults usually have made decisions about the role religion plays in their lives before entering nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Because of this, they are more inclined to spend time exploring things that might deepen their faith or teach them new aspects of their religion, she said.
Mary Jo McBride, who lives at Lenoir Woods, said she spends a lot of time thinking about her faith.
"My spirituality is No. 1 with me," McBride said.
Her room is filled with Christian books. She loans them to other residents and regularly watches church services on her television. She said she really feels like she can see her home in heaven.
Robinson said she feels the nursing home ministry is important because it can provide continuity in spiritual activities for residents, especially when there is a new activities director.
Robinson said the services she leads are nondenominational. At The Bluffs, attendance varies depending on the group leading the service. A Catholic nun also visits every other week to administer Holy Communion to residents who want it.
At Lenoir Woods, services incorporate a lot of songs because singing is something most of the residents can participate in, no matter their mental capacity. Many residents with dementia can still remember the songs and hymns that they sang in church as children, even though more recent memories are lost, said Paula Lee, a nurse leader at Lenoir Woods.
Family members of nursing home residents appreciate the care that chaplains give to their loved ones.
"Chaplain Jerry Riggert drops by and visits from time to time and I think that's a real plus," said Creig Sterrett, whose father is a resident at Lenoir Woods.
Sterrett said he thinks this is especially important because his father is not from Columbia and isn't affiliated with any religious organization in town that could provide this same service for his father.
Sterrett said part of the reason his family chose Lenoir Woods for his father to live was that he and his family felt that there would be "more of a Christian compassion there" since the community is owned by Lutheran Senior Services.
Employees at Lenoir Woods find different ways to show residents compassion and caring.
"I sure don't have all the answers, but I will listen all day long," said employee Sherry Jones.
One benefit that Christisen sees in having chaplains and churches come to The Bluffs is that it connects residents with the outside community.
"I think residents (who practice their faith) are more optimistic," Christisen said.
Four churches take turns visiting and providing services for residents at The Bluffs. They also have about five residents who leave to attend worship services.
"It's very important and fills their life," said Christisen.