Eighteen months into being the UK’s first Simeon Chaplain and I’ve tried to heed the first bit of advice I was given; not to present myself as- The Simeon Chaplain - but simply as “Debbie.” That came from a now 103-year-old and they were wise words.
People are more interested in whether this is someone they can trust, than paper qualifications, (though I am a licensed Church of England Reader in my home parishes). I thought it might take longer to reach the stage of being able to just “pop in” to any one of the four care homes I visit in and around Alton in Hampshire, but within a short time I was made welcome and was coming and going freely – likewise at the sheltered accommodation complexes where I supplement what ministers were already doing in the way of visiting and leading worship beyond any “church” building.
I divide my 20 hours a week between leading services or giving talks, and visiting people one-to-one or at clubs, while also keeping records of conversations (I glean some “real gems”) making new contacts, and getting up to speed with the latest research on issues of “Ageing.”
High on the agenda is the growing number of people living with a dementia and what we can do to help untangle what memories remain through sensitive visiting, and even remembering “on their behalf”- a subject for another article in its own right.
The UK demographics make fascinating reading. One academic described demographics as “like seeing into people’s homes when they leave the curtains open after dark!” Take a peek at how society is changing and you fast realise there are going to be even more of us – many, many more of us over the age of 65 – in a few years time: 4 per cent more in “dependent old age” by 2016 in this part of Hampshire, and UK-wide an extra 58,500 people needing nursing or residential care by 2020. We’re facing a totally unknown phenomenon- never before in human history has there been this number of people living for so long!
The Church wants to be at the forefront of helping people live long, meaningful lives. I am so glad to be part of a joint initiative by Methodists and Anglicans. But how well are we doing in the Church generally at reaching out to people in the third and increasingly fourth phases of life…let alone as those challenges become even greater?
These are the big questions I am beginning to wrestle with, while seeking to be alongside those in their 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and older for whom it is their lived experience now.Life spent largely in the company of older people is rewarding, often amusing, a curious mixture of the surreal and the almost unbearably poignant. It is such a privilege to share, for example, the heartache left in the wake of a middle-aged daughter’s early death. A story to resonate with that of Mary, warned by Simeon: “and a sword shall pierce your soul also.” (Luke 2:35)
A privilege too when someone tells, perhaps for the first time, of a religious experience – a vision they have had – that’s coloured life ever since; a life illuminated thanks to that one consoling glimpse of glory. “Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…” (Acts 2:17)
Every time I’m tempted to think I might be doing something for the good of another, I realise I’m receiving far more than I could ever give. I am ministered to… more than I had imagined possible.
Being a Simeon Chaplain has its quirky moments; trying to talk to a resident still clutching her false teeth, sewing on a skirt button for someone who can’t see the needle (me squinting as well!), or looking for a lost possession because until it’s found there can be no peace of mind!
I’ve discussed the rights and wrongs of ethical issues, have been behind the scenes at a funeral parlour. Life is never dull and if this first year and a half is anything to go by it’s speeding up… Every human being at whatever age- but most especially when life has been long and varied- is fascinating. Each presents a unique mix of life experience and sometimes “biographical pain” which requires a patient, compassionate, listener. Though I was the first in the UK, there is already another Simeon Chaplain, Fay, working in Derbyshire in a set of rural parishes and it would be marvellous to see many more springing up elsewhere. Watch this space! Or watch the half hour DVD I have made: “What is a Simeon Chaplain?”