Deacon Paul Bovyn has dedicated his Saturday mornings to doing a Communion service at a Chicago nursing home for the better part of two decades. His Wednesdays are reserved for making Communion calls on people who can’t get out to go to Mass.
Deacon Bovyn, a great-grandfather himself, sees the loneliness that many of the people he ministers to live with.
“I learned something about the power of a handshake,” said Deacon Bovyn, who is retired from his ministry at Resurrection Parish in Chicago. “When I go to [St. Paul’s] nursing home, I shake their hands probably at least three times in the hour or so that I’m there. They want that touch. Sometimes they’ll just hang onto my hand.”
The people he visits on Wednesdays are more likely to have family living with them, but some are on their own, and they look forward to his arrival.
“If I’m 10 or 15 minutes late, they want to know why,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
Deacon Bill Heiman, director of Catholic Senior Services of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said many seniors are in a time of transition, leaving the homes where they raised their families or spent the bulk of their adult lives.
Sometimes they have to move because they can’t afford to remain in their homes, or they can no longer maintain them, or they need the help they can get in an assisted living center. But leaving their homes often means losing their parish ties, said Deacon Heiman.
“We see that in the liturgy, we see it in parish programs, all the way to parish festivals and their own small communities, like people who attend daily Mass,” he said.
The archdiocese is working to make sure seniors connect with new parishes or forge strong linkages with their previous parishes, he said. It’s part of an effort to make sure the continuum of sacramental services is available to all. That represents a shift from the original emphasis of Catholic Senior Services, which was on providing affordable housing.
“I think there is a problem with spiritual loneliness with a lot of people,” Deacon Heiman told OSV. “They are feeling a lot of losses. Loss of work and volunteerism, loss of family and parish life. That’s where the call to Church, the call to mission comes in.”
He is working with the diaconate formation program in his archdiocese to encourage more deacons to minister in senior facilities — both Catholic and non-Catholic. It’s a ministry that he became familiar with visiting his grandmother at a nursing home, and getting to know all the other residents.
Father Charles Rubey, who writes a column for the Keenager News newspaper published by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that more parishes should get involved in offering ministry to seniors, especially those who have a hard time getting out. Some of them feel the sense of abandonment that Jesus felt as he approached his own death.
“A lot of them are pretty isolated. Their families are dying off, their friends are dying off, and they feel like they don’t matter to anyone. That’s why so many seniors end up committing suicide,” said Father Rubey, who started and still directs Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide.
Most parishes have ministers of care such as Deacon Bovyn who bring the Eucharist to people who don’t get out of their homes much, he said. As extraordinary ministers of holy Communion they could take time to visit and get to know people, he said, or parishes could get other volunteers to visit. “Older people, with their life experiences, have a lot to offer,” he said.
Some parishes maintain senior clubs, which offer their older members a chance to get together on a weekly or monthly basis to play cards, share coffee and socialize.
Social time is also an important component of many of Catholic Charities’ more practical senior programs in Chicago and elsewhere, Father Rubey said. Residents of affordable senior housing tend to congregate in common areas, he said, and the organization offers communal meals for seniors who can drive or get a ride, allowing them to meet up with friends every week or so.
Other Catholic organizations, from the Knights of Columbus to Altar and Rosary societies, also offer social outlets for senior members. But those opportunities tend to close off if the senior moves away.
Deacon Heiman said parishes must become more sensitive to new seniors in their midst.
“We tend to walk over and say hello when we see a new young family,” he said. “But not as much if we see a senior on his or her own.”
Deacon Bovyn sees the end of that loneliness when some of the seniors in the nursing home die. They don’t want church funerals, even though they were practicing Catholics, because their families have fallen away, and they don’t want to embarrass them. Instead, he often does prayer services or orga-nizes a Mass for their friends at the nursing home.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.
How seniors can contribute (sidebar)
Father Charles Rubey, who writes a column in the Keenager News for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that seniors have a lot to offer their parishes, including those who are homebound or who just don’t get out very much.
Parish volunteers who visit them could bring a stack of notecards and the names of other seniors who are homebound, he said, and they could write notes and offer prayers for the people on the list.
They could also write to people who are on the parish’s prayer list, or establish pen-pal relationships with other seniors, Father Rubey suggested.
Of course, not all seniors are homebound, and plenty of them are contributing by volunteering or ministering in all kinds of areas.
Deacon Paul Bovyn, for example, is a Korean War veteran. At 80, he is the one doing the ministry. He also makes time to help parishioners who are members of his generation in less formal ways, like going out for meals and taking them places with him.
“Otherwise, they might not get out,” he said.
Parish Support (sidebar)
In “A Time to Reap,” a 2007 pastoral letter to Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Harry Flynn, now archbishop emeritus, noted the important role older adults play in parish life. “In the parish community, seniors are a source of wisdom, energy and strong leadership. In later years, elders discover a deeper desire to serve God and to give back to the community,” he wrote. “They are a cherished presence, bringing a lifetime of skills and experiences and a well-developed sense of responsibility. These older volunteers find fulfillment in being productive and giving back to the community and to society at large. They realize they are doing the Lord’s work here and now.”
He then noted some ways in which parishes could provide assistance to their elder members or other older adults in their community:
- Educating parishioners about the needs of the elderly.
- Organizing volunteers to provide transportation, home services, friendship and spiritual counseling to seniors.
- Making their land and/or facilities available for long-term care residences and programs.
- Cooperating with other parishes, churches, providers and community groups to meet the needs of the elderly.
- Providing innovative programs in Catholic schools that teach students about the process of aging that engage them in programs that bridge the younger and older generations.
To read the entire pastoral letter, visit www.catholicseniorservices.org/pastoralOnAging.pdf.