GREENFIELD — Barbara Miller is tapping her right hand on the armrest of her wheelchair.
Cecil and JoAnn Yeary are standing in front of a wall panel that looks like a stained-glass window. They follow along with the recorded music and sing out to Miller and others gathered in the dining room at Kindred Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Greenfield a recent Monday evening:
“Bowed-down is this body from cares of this life
and troubled so often with pain …
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I’ll just lay it down and leave it,
I’ll lay it down and leave it,
I’ll carry this burden no more.”
Miller knows the words to many of the songs.
Later, Jimmy Gilbert, associate pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Lapel, delivers a sermon based on Psalm 23. He talks about the verse, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” and tells those gathered, “God can give you a peace that no man can give you.”
She is there listening “every time there’s a service,” she says.
“It feeds you. It gives you what you’re striving to go for,” Miller says. “To me, it’s a very sacred time, as well as enjoyable.”
Before she lived at Kindred, Miller worked there for 19 years. Her life before moving to the facility included church attendance at Greenfield Church of God. She helped organize church dinners, funeral meals and garage sales. But for about six months before she moved to Kindred, she wasn’t able to go, and “that’s hard when you’ve gone all your life.”
That’s why she’s grateful to Gilbert, the Yearys and others who organize services and other spiritual opportunities for residents.
“A lot of us here couldn’t have that fellowship if they didn’t have this,” Miller says.
Nearby, fellow resident Lucy Smith feels the same way.
“I just like to go to church, and I enjoy having them here,” Smith said.
Smith belongs to Bethel Baptist Church in Greenfield. In years past, her work schedule hampered her ability to attend church. Now living at Kindred, she appreciates the Monday night services.
Les Franklin closes the Monday evening gathering with a prayer request time, remembering residents who are ill and seeking safe travel for the singers and speaker. He has been organizing the Monday rotation of churches since 1984.
“I enjoy every minute of it,” Franklin said. Another man at church asked him to take over the responsibility years ago, and “The first time I saw the residents, I just fell in love. God spoke to my heart that this is where I need to be.”
For 33 years, the Yearys have driven down from Arcadia once a month to sing at Kindred. They are often accompanied by another couple when that couple is not snowbirding in Florida. Other Monday singers and speakers are lined up by Franklin.
And the spiritual activities at the facility aren’t limited to Monday. There’s something on Saturday mornings, a Saturday evening Bible study, Holy Land videos two Wednesdays per month and a Sunday service.
Song-and-sermon services and other religious programming are carried out each week at various senior living facilities by volunteers from a range of local churches. Grateful residents say they appreciate the opportunity. Volunteers say it’s a chance to remember a group of people too often forgotten.
On both sides of that equation, connections are made. Smith says residents and those who come to minister are often on a first-name basis with each other. Franklin laments that the Monday services have lost several regulars recently.
In any such service, there can be a mix of people and backgrounds.
“A lot of the folks who are elderly now have a root of something,” whether that was Sunday School as a child or some other religious involvement, said Russel Jarvis, who visits with a number of older patients in his work as lead chaplain at Hancock Regional Hospital.
And some who might not have a religious background from the past “just go where the action is. … They’re hungry for some stimulation.”
There might even be a person who was simply wheeled into the room by another well-meaning person, and “you hope that what’s going on is touching them in some way,” Jarvis said.
Services have the potential to remind residents “I still have a hope and a future. I’m not just reminiscing about the past,” he said.
Across town from Kindred, Audrey Brown often attends services offered at Golden Living Center-Brandywine. She and her husband, Marshall, went to church together for 34 years, during which they were involved in Sunday School, and he served for a while as church treasurer.
They eventually ended up living at Golden Living and attending services there.
She can point to the spot in the facility’s dining room where they were sitting as they sang along with “Mansion Over the Hilltop” during a service. It’s the last song she remembers him singing before he died.
Since his passing, she’s gone to various services, some organized by Sugar Creek Baptist Church. On one recent Sunday she was at the monthly hymn sing service with members of Faith United Methodist Church, one of several local churches on a rotation to lead services at Golden Living.
“I like to hear the singing. Some of the songs stir you up,” Brown said. “It’s great they’re spending their time.”
At the table with her is Patricia Alley, who remembers attending Greenfield Church of Christ in the years before she moved to Golden Living. She was involved in a women’s club there and part of church dinners and other activities. “The girls” haven’t forgotten her, either.
“They come up and see me once a week,” often bringing a sweet treat such as cookies or candy, she said.
Alley, who like Brown moved to Golden Living with her husband and has lost him in recent years, finds encouragement in the music at the services.
“I love the singing,” she said. “In the Garden” is one of her favorites.
Mike Hopper, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, brings folders with sheets of song lyrics printed out so those who come to the service can sing along. His wife, Becky, has a degree in music education and plays piano for the gathering. They’ll take requests.
Hopper has ministered in this type of setting before. While growing up in Augusta, Georgia, he sometimes went with a group from his church to sing at a facility. He remembers marveling at the seniors’ age as a youth; “now (at 68), I am one.”
Hopper has been pastor at Faith United Methodist for three years. He was only a few weeks into his tenure when members invited him to be part of the ministry they already had a few blocks away from the church at Golden Living.
Church member Ted Hatfield “had a vision that the church could do something,” Hopper said. For many years Hatfield visited to show a video and hand out treats; eventually, the church began the service. Today, Hatfield is a resident attending the services.
Member Aron Copeland brings his guitar and sings some of the songs. During “Amazing Grace,” two staff members checking a resident’s temperature and other vital signs are among those singing along. Copeland is one of several church members who go to the service each month with the Hoppers.
“It requires a special kind of compassion,” Hopper said of those who go beyond a one-time visit to regularly reach out to those living in facilities. “They can walk in the shoes of the people there and say, ‘Here’s what I would be feeling.’”
Hopper seemed to be aiming for that empathy in his message about light, based on John 8:12.
“Your darkness might be loneliness,” he said. “If you’ve trusted God in your life, he will carry you through the darkness. He can fill you with hope. He can fill you with joy. He can fill you with peace.
“Whatever your darkness might be, here is the promise of God from his word.”
He spoke those words to about 25 gathered in the dining room, though as many as 50 have come to a service in the past. In that crowd, some have been longtime churchgoers, and “there are some there that don’t have any religious background,” Hopper said.
He does not feature an altar call — an invitation to make a commitment to Jesus — in the services. He does, however, tell residents that if they want to speak to a pastor, ask a staff member to call him. Some of the residents have taken him up on a conversation.
A chance to be heard is vital, Jarvis said.
“We need to remember that this is 70, 80, 90 years of experience,” Jarvis said. “If you listen well, you’ll hear the wisdom. You can honor the person. …
“When we do that, it draws something out of us.”
Ronald Smith said part of the time he and his wife, Karen, spend at senior living facilities is spent on that personal interaction.
The couple visits Springhurst Health Campus in Greenfield on the first Sunday afternoon of the month and its Legacy memory care neighborhood on the fourth Sunday. After each of those, they head to Sugar Creek Nursing and Rehabilitation near Gem.
Though they have a brief service, they also walk down hallways. They offer cards with Bible verses and pray with people who would like to. On special occasions such as Mother’s Day, they’ll try to bring more friends from Evangel Christian Church and hand out cards or flowers.
“It just really encourages them,” Ronald Smith said. “(We’re just) trying to be a blessing to everyone we see.”
In a couple of deeper conversations, “I’ve had people surrender to the Lord,” he said.
He said the services are made up of group singing and a short message. If there’s a topic he feels God wants him to speak about, he and Karen will look up verses about that subject and deliver that message.
They are simple services, sometimes shared with 10 people or as few as three, but they can be powerful times, he said, times when God’s power seemed to drop down.
“They all know the words (and were) shouting, lifting hands,” he said. “It was glorious.”
“It feeds you. It gives you what you’re striving to go for. To me, it’s a very sacred time, as well as enjoyable.”
“It requires a special kind of compassion. They can walk in the shoes of the people there and say, ‘Here’s what I would be feeling.’”
-Mike Hopper, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church
Those who go into senior living facilities to minister to residents also have words of encouragement for the staffs there.
During a recent service, Mike Hopper, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, remembered staff members in a prayer, asking God to give them “an extra measure of blessing for their service.”
Ronald Smith, who attends Evangel Christian Church and leads services at various facilities, said, “God has put them there. That’s a hard job to do. (They’re) a blessing to the people that have to live there.”