The chapel at The Bluffs, a Columbia skilled nursing facility, feels more like a living room than a church. The chairs are in a circle; a podium is pushed back against the wall, seemingly forgotten. Some residents come and go by wheelchair, others with the help of a walker.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 10 women came to the chapel for a Bible study. A few dozed in their wheelchairs, while others chatted before class began.
“I enjoyed your singing yesterday,” one woman says to another.
“Well, thank you,” is the reply. “We were only singing the old songs that everyone grew up with.”
The class begins with praise music. Many of the women adjust the lyric sheets to arms’ length so their eyes can focus on the words. Gravelly voices praising God mix with the sounds of medicine carts and mop buckets from a nearby hallway. The music over, they begin discussing a passage from Scripture.
“Is it good news that we don’t have to worship in a temple?” the class leader asks.
Someone replies,“It’s good news for us because we can’t get to church.”
Many residents of assisted-living facilities don’t have the opportunity to participate in the life that teems beyond the walls. They experience life through visitors, scheduled activities and their memories. They rely on one another. But for many, faith in God is their connection to the broader world.
Each person has their own story of faith that is as individual as they are. Faith fulfills different needs in each nursing home resident’s life, from helping these residents cope with loneliness to giving them cause to celebrate.
“Much of the residents’ socialization comes through church people,” says Laura Christisen, activities director at The Bluffs.
For Bluffs resident Georgia Hunter, 80, her church, First Baptist, provides such a connection. As the years have ticked by, Hunter‘s faith has become more important. She doesn’t attend services at First Baptist often anymore, so the church sends her a cassette of each week’s service.
“That way it feels like I’ve been to church,” Hunter says.
The recorded services also help fill a void created when Hunter lost her sight in 1995. Blindness, however, can’t stop her from meditating on God’s word.
“I recite verses to myself that have meant a lot to me,” she says.
Older people naturally reflect on the past, says Glenda Nickell, an instructor of clinical nursing at MU and a core faculty member with the Center for Religion, the Professions and the Public. And Nickell believes people become more receptive to religion the older they get. Faith gives nursing home residents a context with which to evaluate their lives, Nickell says .
“When you are young, you think you are going to live forever,” Nickell says. “When you are older, you know you are not.”
Sometimes, faith reaches residents when nothing else will, says Peggy Morris, activity director at Columbia Manor Care Center. Even when they can no longer carry on a conversation, Morris says, they can sing all the words of a hymn.
“Some residents are not the most alert,” Morris says, “but religion is something that brings them back.”
When Carolyn Smarr, 73, speaks of her faith, she does so with passion, punctuating her words with one hand; the other rests on a red Gap pillow propped on the tray of her wheelchair.
Smarr wishes faith had taken root earlier in her life.
“When I was younger, I just didn’t pay enough attention,” Smarr says. “I know more now. I listen more to the Scriptures.”
Smarr attends a Bible study at the Bluffs led by college-age interns from Christian Fellowship. She enjoys seeing younger people display their faith in a way she did not.
“I appreciate the young people.” Smarr says. “I like to see what faith they have. That young people choose to spend time with us old people is great.”
Religion is of course, a source of comfort for many people, including the elderly. Nickell says that assisted-living residents turn to their Bibles and other religious symbols, such as the cross and the Star of David, for support.
“Religion is something that helps them through hard times, and the nursing home is often a hard time,” Nickell says .
Indeed, says Irene Janes, who is 84 and a resident of Columbia Manor Care Center. “There isn’t a one here that doesn’t want to be out on their own,” she says.
Yet, Janes says she has found that God is with her at Columbia Manor, just as he has always been. “He’s been there for years and years,” she says . “I know he’s always thinking about me.”
And Janes is always thinking of him. Two strokes have robbed Janes of much of her mobility. She keeps her family nearby, however. The wall next to her bed is covered with pictures of the ones she loves, some in frames, others on a bulletin board separated by dandelion-colored rickrack.
When she can’t make it to the center’s church service, Janes listens from her bed just down the hall. When she does attend, tears roll down her cheeks, even though she says crying causes her to sing out of tune. “I’m a crier,” Janes says. “I always cry. My mom was a crier, too.”
Annie Landrum, 84, also keeps her family close; she does so with her words. Her conversation runs a cycle of four topics: her three daughters, teaching first grade, her parents and the importance of a college education. Her faith does not regularly surface, although she says it is important to her. She attends every Bible study and hymn singalong that Candlelight Lodge offers.
“I think when you reach a senior age, you are much more religious than when you are younger,” Landrum says. “You have much more to think about.”
Clara Ballinger, 89, turns to her faith when worries arise. Ballinger has lived at Columbia Manor for six months. Her face, etched by the years, draws in with concern when she speaks of her children. Ballinger turns to the Bible two or three times a week, “especially when I’m trying to figure something out,” she says.
“I’ve always been a worry wart,” Ballinger says . “At times I know they say, ‘Don’t tell Mama.’” But, she adds, “I have faith. I don’t know what I’d do without it. What can you expect with my age and everything?”
Faith can even help transform a new environment into a home.
Ginny Anderson, 67, attended church every Sunday as a child. Regular services are still important to her. She says having opportunities to practice her faith at The Bluffs has made it more like home to her.
“Everyone that is related to me lives hundreds of miles away,” Anderson says. “This is my home now.”