At-home retreat brings Scripture, spirituality to seniors

Ever since my two great-aunts spoiled me rotten as a child, I've had a soft spot in my heart for senior citizens. Aunts Rite (for Marguerite) and Bess were my own personal fairy godmothers. They delighted in taking me shopping every year for an unasked-for-but-much-needed new dress. They quietly slipped me a whole half-dollar when my younger sisters received only quarters. Aunt Bess shamelessly doted on me, marveling that at age 4, I loved jigsaw puzzles. My favorite was a 500-piece beauty showing a massive blue whale breaching in a white-capped sea. I spent many happy hours with Aunt Bess patiently fitting those lovely pieces together.

As an oldest and somewhat hyper-responsible girl-child, I must have needed their coddling. Anyway, that's what I tell myself today. (It helps with the guilt.) My great-aunts never married (though both had beaux) and held good jobs working in retail back in the day when locally owned department stores could still prosper. Since their sister, my mom's mother, died when Mom was 11, my sisters and I became surrogate grandchildren. With our parents, we regularly visited on weekends and holidays enjoying sumptuous home-cooked dinners lovingly prepared by Aunt Rite.

It broke my heart when Aunt Bess died in a nursing home three years after contracting Alzheimer's disease. I was 22, a registered nurse, and wondered what was up with this death thing anyway? A year later, I nursed Aunt Rite after surgery for what turned out to be ovarian cancer. I stayed with her for two nights at the hospital before departing for graduate school. When I went in to say goodbye, she looked at me with her steady blue eyes and imparted this succinct bit of advice: "Always stay true to your religion, kid."

I quickly (too quickly) responded: "You'll see me again Aunt Rite, I'll be home for Thanksgiving." She shook her head and didn't reply. Although the doctors had said death was months away, Aunt Rite joined Aunt Bess in heaven just three days later.

Because I had these really great great-aunts, I always enjoyed working with "the elderly" in my nursing career and thereafter. I admired their kindly wisdom and secretly envied such steady patience in the face of adversity.

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So I was intrigued to learn about a retired nurse's creative at-home spiritual companioning outreach to seniors. The Living Room Retreats project is the brainchild of Joanne Sheldon, a former hospice nurse educator. Working in hospice, Joanne frequently observed an unfolding spiritual component that she believes her clients didn't always know how to articulate.

"Noticing that spiritual component led me to recognize that elders -- not just the dying -- had similar needs," she said. Without knowing of her interest, Joanne's boss forwarded a serendipitous email she had received about the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University. Just a year away from retirement, Joanne decided to enroll in the two-year certificate program.

After completing her training, Joanne provided spiritual services to the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, a program designed for active folks 55 and over. "But then I got to thinking," she said. "There are lots of elderly people who are used to going to parish missions for Lent and can't get out anymore."

After talking it over with her pastor, Joanne placed a notice in her parish bulletin offering the Living Room Retreats to anyone who wished to participate during the six weeks of Lent.

The first year, program response was somewhat underwhelming, if memorable: "One little 97-year-old Italian lady enrolled," Joanne said. "I assumed Maria" (not her real name) "would need a large-print Bible, but when I got there, she didn't even wear glasses."

At their initial meeting, Joanne introduced a "praying with Ignatius" tool she had adapted with special themes and daily Scripture passages on which to focus.

"I was surprised that she jumped right into it," Joanne recounted. "Maria told me, 'I never talked to God like this ... We were never allowed to read the Bible when I was growing up.'"

Over the ensuing five weeks, Maria "devoured everything" Joanne gave her and asked to continue meeting after the program ended. "She wanted to know more about God and what it is like to die, even though I had no intent to bring it up. I was so encouraged. She really urged me to continue," Joanne said.

The following Lent, a group from the local senior high-rise asked to attend. Again and again, people said how much they loved praying with the Bible.

"People liked learning how to apply the Scriptures to their own lives," Joanne said. "Reflecting on the Scriptures was a new thing for them. They hadn't realized that this was a way that God could speak to their own individual situation."

Joanne's elders were dealing with an array of spiritual concerns, including strained family relationships, accepting the aging process, how to deal with change, and worries about where they would live the rest of their lives. They wanted to know how to pray and to explore different ways of praying. One person asked, "How do I know what God is saying to me?" Joanne's straightforward reply brought light: "Only by sitting in prayer can we learn."

Although few experienced any "big revelation" by the end of the program, most felt a greater confidence in God and were able to trust more deeply. "God will take care of me," said one 100-year-old woman, "and now I have the Scriptures to fall back on."

Scripture reflection is a great Vatican II gift for everyone, but perhaps especially for our elders who were denied access to the Bible after being told as children, "It will only confuse you." My great-aunts were women of deep faith and big fans of the rosary. They would have loved to learn about praying with the Scriptures.

For my part, it's not always been easy to heed my Aunt Rite's deathbed advice and "stay true to my religion." Along with the great gifts of the Second Vatican Council, there are also so many grievous church crises today -- crises that would have been completely beyond her ken.

Programs like the Ignatian Spirituality Institute and fantastic people like Joanne Sheldon help me remember what true Catholicism is all about.

They also remind me why church renewal and reform are worth fighting for.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

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