Judith is spending some much needed time visiting family this week and has asked those of us who serve with her on the Resolutions Review Committee if we might share some thoughts with you while she’s away. After a phone conversation with my parents last night, I knew which of the resolutions was on my heart.
My parents are friends with an elderly couple – both in their 90’s – who have no family living near them. Their son died a few years ago and their daughter lives in California. The husband – let’s call him Fred – has some pretty serious dementia. On Sunday morning, Fred showed up at his church alone. A concerned parishioner asked him where his wife was and Fred shared that she had been admitted to “a facility” for rehab but he wasn’t sure why she had been admitted and he couldn’t remember the name of the facility. After the service, the parishioner called my parents who immediately called to check on Fred. He had made it home safely from church but was very confused so my parents hopped in their car and drove to his house. They found Fred standing in his kitchen looking at a map of the city trying to figure out where his wife might be. After searching through some papers in a drawer they found a folder with information on the facility. They called and confirmed that, indeed, the Fred’s wife was there so they took him to visit her. Fortunately, Fred has compassionate friends and a church with a very well-organized pastoral care team! This team has since met and is coming up with a plan to help make sure that Fred is safe until his daughter can fly into town.
While this story has a good ending, it could quite easily have ended with tragedy! People suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia frequently become confused and wander away from the safety of their homes. The winter months are particularly dangerous, especially if the person ventures outdoors without proper winter clothing.
Resolution C020 from the 2015 General Convention speaks to our ministry to people with mental illness and the families who care for them:
C020: Ministry to People with Mental Illness and Their Families
Resolved, That the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church calls upon dioceses, congregations, schools and other entities of the Episcopal Church to explore and adopt best practices for the vitality and increased capacity of their mission and ministry in the inclusion, support, and spiritual care for persons with mental illness and their families; and be it further
Resolved, That dioceses, congregations, schools and other entities of the Episcopal Church increase understanding about mental illness by providing educational material and training; utilizing existing programs such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, veterans groups, governmental departments of mental health, local organizations, and other programs and organizations; and sharing the information so that it is readily accessible.
When we speak of mental illness, we often only think of those who have been diagnosed with chronic depression, bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia. Yet, in addition to these illnesses, many of our congregations have a growing number of older adults who may be dealing with some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s and may be in need of our love and support. Do we have a contact list of support groups and agencies in our area that can provide extra assistance? Are we prepared to step in and help if there is no family in the area? Do we have phone numbers for family members so we can contact them in an emergency? When a member is admitted to an assisted living facility or nursing home, do we have a team of Eucharistic Visitors ready so that this member can continue to share Holy Eucharist with us?
The Alzheimer’s Association has many helpful resources on their website where you can also find a page that will help you locate a local support group. If there isn’t an Alzheimer’s support group in your area, perhaps your congregation might consider starting one.
The Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island has developed an Alzheimer’s Support Team (AST) composed of hand-selected, trained lay people who have a special passion for assisting families in their churches, or in neighboring parishes, who are struggling with Alzheimer’s disease or one of the related dementias. This team works closely with clergy to assist families devastated by these mental illnesses. You can learn more about this ministry here.
Our Diocese also has resources available on our website for training Eucharistic Visitors to take communion to those who can’t be with us on Sunday mornings. Training is usually done by the clergy of your congregation. If you are in a congregation without a priest, check with the Whitaker Institute’s Program Assistant, Knena Causey, to see when the next training sessions will be held.
Remember that mental illness is often a subject that people are reluctant to talk about. Our elderly members are proud and may not speak up to let us know when they are in need of assistance. It’s up to us to recognize how valuable these members are to our congregations and to seek caring and compassionate ways to ensure their safety while maintaining their dignity.
Let us pray…
We confess that we have judged those who struggle with mental illness. We have judged because we do not understand. Forgive us for making assumptions. Forgive us for our indifference. Help us to identify mental illness as the disease it is, that we might have courage and wisdom in the face of ignorance and stigma. Inspire us as we seek to overcome fear, acquire knowledge, and advocate for compassionate and enlightened treatment and services. Comfort and relieve those who are troubled in mind and spirit.
Bring them hope, peace and the consolation of a loving community. Grant patience and courage to the families and friends of those who are ill. Increase their perseverance as they face challenges for their loved one. And help us always to reach out to all those in need with love, that they may feel your loving embrace through our arms. Amen.
(The prayer is adapted from prayers found at AprilYamasaki.com.)
The Rev. Diana Walworth, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council