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Care home ministry evolving in Plymouth


Joanna Bound and Debbie Thrower at a training day in Exeter in June 2018

The promotion of Anna Chaplaincy across Devon continues with a commissioning service of the first Anna Chaplains and Anna Friends in Plymouth on 7 November 2021. Joanna Bound describes the steps taken to reach this point in the evolution of care home ministry in Plymouth:


'In October 2012 I was asked by my incumbent if I could take a Remembrance event in the local dementia care home. It was arranged with the activities worker, who also asked me if I could take communion to a male resident. I took him communion every fortnight for two years until he died. I believe he died at peace with his Lord. As I watched God at work in his life, he changed and became a gentler person. His stepson noticed this and asked me to tell them what we talked about at his funeral, which as a reader I was able to take. I continued to visit the care home, getting to know some of the residents, their relatives and staff.


I was later asked by a staff member, of another faith, if I could help with meeting the spiritual needs of residents. I started taking a Christian monthly service to which anyone was welcome, as well as visiting at other times. We began the services with a church member who could play the piano. I was given a small keyboard which was ideal. She asked if she could do alternate months. She was hesitant about the commitment to such a ministry. After the first service she volunteered to come every time. I also had a few volunteers come and help with the singing and so added volume.


I found I could not lead, turn pages for residents, and focus on residents who were struggling in any way. Sadly, after a couple of years, our pianist became unwell and later died. I had to find an alternative. I had a couple of CDs of Christian hymns sung by choirs. These did not really work, the number of musicians and choir members confused us, as we tried to sing with them, especially when they sang in parts. I found ‘Hymns We Have Loved’ by Kevin Mayhew. These had one musician and one singer, so were easy to follow, especially as this was a nursing home for people with dementia. It was wonderful to watch residents come to life and sing the hymns they knew and loved.


The residents were from different backgrounds and denominations so the services were not specifically “Anglican”. However, I always put a cross, a Bible and a candle on a table, or on a trolley! I reminded residents what they stood for. I discovered that, when I was taking a service, I had to be ready for the unexpected.


A woman I had befriended when she could still hold a conversation, loved "All things bright and beautiful". She deteriorated slowly until she became almost totally withdrawn. One day I got down in front of her chair, established eye contact and started to sing "All things bright and beautiful". She smiled and began to sing with me. The staff were amazed, they had not seen her so animated for months. I learned to recognise the tiniest movement or change in facial expression as a sign of recognition of a hymn. One or two of the relatives joined in and noticed the changes in their loved ones.


The activities worker introduced me as chaplain to a resident who told me he wanted nothing to do with God, so we talked about sport and the weather. He deteriorated and after a couple of years had to spend his days in the lounge as he was unsafe to be left in his room. One day after a service, I felt compelled to tentatively ask him if I could pray for him. “I wish someone would” he replied. A few weeks later we noticed that he had joined in singing one of the hymns. It was not long after that he died. The Lord had done something in his life.


I watched the Lord work in residents, relatives and occasionally staff members. I took the funerals of several residents. It was such a privilege to take the funeral of people I knew and this was of value to the relatives as well. I learned how the staff supported each other and also how they knew and supported the relatives. I was aware that every resident who died left a gap for members of staff and they grieved.


As I became known by the staff, I was called into the care home for specific reasons. There was a lady who was convinced God had forgotten her because of the sin in her life. I was asked if I could support the family of a man who was dying and prayed with them all. I prayed with a woman unable to go to her husband's funeral. I spent some time with a Pentecostal couple and their daughter. I sang with the wife/mother who had come to the point of refusing her medication, then she stopped eating and lastly she stopped drinking. I had to ask the husband to teach me some Pentecostal choruses we could sing together. They valued the support I gave them as we talked about loss and letting go.


I had been chaplain of this dementia care home for about two years when I had the opportunity to volunteer with Churches Together in Plymouth to revitalise the Care Home Chaplaincy scheme in Plymouth. This was an ecumenical project with volunteers from different denominations. My professional background in health and social care, mainly with older people both at home and in care homes, equipped me for this piece of work.


I contacted the Dignity in Care Home Forum (Plymouth City Council) and was given the opportunity to talk at one of the quarterly meetings of care home managers. I was asked if I would create a questionnaire. The result showed that the majority of managers would like some form of pastoral care visiting. They appreciated the church leaders who took monthly services but it was not enough. I gradually made contact with some of the care home managers. A resident in one of the care homes was appointed as chaplain for the home where he lived. He was relatively mobile and knew several of the residents. The manager later told me he was a changed man. He had purpose and was valued by the staff.


I realised, as I began to get to know some of the staff of other care homes, that many of them had little idea of God and how to use the volunteers. The management team of one home agreed for me to do a session with some of the staff on the spiritual needs of older people. The staff began to identify certain residents who might be helped by a such a volunteer.


"I have watched the Lord slowly bring this together"


Early on I realised I needed some formalised prayer support. Five members of my church volunteered to pray for me, so I sent them regular prayer letters. I had asked for prayer for the ministry from the Churches Together in Plymouth (CTiP) city prayer group that met weekly. They were very supportive, as was the chair of CTiP.


As I began to recruit more volunteers I knew they needed to have DBS checks and safeguarding training. The manager of the homes agreed to do the DBS checks in the same way as they did them for their staff. The volunteers attended the city council adult safeguarding training. I also realised they needed pastoral care training. I worked with the Derriford Hospital chaplaincy team and arranged for the care home volunteers to join the hospital chaplaincy pastoral care visitor training courses.


Supervision, support and encouragement of the volunteers was important. We had meetings that I described as “mutual supervision and support”. Most of the gatherings were spent with half the time in teaching from visiting speakers and the second half with a time of sharing and prayer. The chaplains were all so different with varied skills and experience. They were from different denominations. Most were retired.


About two years ago, after much discussion, Karen Grimshaw and I decided to change the name of volunteers from Care Home Chaplains to Pastoral Care Visitors.


However, I had been introduced to the idea of Anna Chaplains for Older People by an article in the Reader Magazine (now Transforming Ministry) from Spring 2016 written by Debbie Thrower who was the first Anna Chaplain. In the same magazine, there was an article by a Lay Reader who was appointed as a “Lay Worker for Older people” based at his local church. I was inspired by these two articles and knew Plymouth needed an Anna Chaplain.


Chris Forster, from Transforming Plymouth Together, and I had a meeting with Bishop Nick, the Bishop of Plymouth, on 7 December 2017. He was enthusiastic and encouraging. I had a strong feeling that this was the beginning of a journey. Bishop Nick later offered to take a service for the chaplains to encourage existing volunteers and others caring for older people.


I prayed often for someone to help me and so did my prayer team and the CTiP prayer group.

By this time I had about 18 volunteers going into care homes. I had to discern who was suitable to volunteer for this role. I also discovered much of what churches were already doing. We had our mutual support and supervision meetings every 6 to 8 weeks. I talked about training with the Derriford Hospital chaplaincy team who agreed to include one or two potential chaplains in their pastoral care training for volunteer hospital visitors. They emphasised the need for reflective practice.


Karen Grimshaw, who attended a Pentecostal church, had heard me talk at a Plymouth Dementia Action Alliance meeting and had taken one of the leaflets about the scheme. When Karen retired two years later, she made contact and agreed to help me. Her skills, training and professional experience were ideal for the task. Soon we were sharing the work and then, early in 2020, it was time for me to hand over the reins but stay supportive of her. She was happy to be involved with the training so there was no further need to send volunteers to the hospital.


Early in 2019, I was invited to a meeting at the Old Deanery Exeter, to be part of a working group to look at the discipleship of the over 60s. I had taken the article by Debbie Thrower which created a lot of interest. I later met with the Chair of the House of Laity, Annie Jefferies, who was at the meeting and shared with her the work done so far regarding pastoral care in care homes.


We later met with Karen. I had been to Debbie Thrower’s Anna Chaplaincy envisioning gathering in 2018. I was very encouraged by the presentations and discussions about how the role of Anna Chaplains was evolving across the country. Karen and Annie came with me the following year, in October 2019. Annie was enthusiastic about the idea of Anna Chaplains and had meetings with Debbie Thrower and the diocesan Bishop, Bishop Robert, who wanted to see the role of Anna Chaplains extended across Devon. This had to be an ecumenical project.


On the afternoon of Wednesday 13 January 2021, there was a meeting of twelve interested people from across Devon including the Devon County Ecumenical officer, Paul Snell. Bishop Robert had agreed at a meeting that morning that all was ready to take steps forward to cement the scheme across the Exeter Diocese, with the Plymouth Archdeaconry as a pilot.


I was reminded of that first meeting in 2016 with Chris Forster and Bishop Nick. I have watched the Lord slowly bring this together. There has been lots of prayer support, frustration, heartache, and joy. Frustration came when I felt I had let a care home down when a chaplain was unable to continue or the care home manager changed. Heartache was felt when I walked out of the dementia care home in tears asking the Lord, “Why does it have to end this way?”. I had seen the intense pain in relatives. There was joy when I saw folk in end-stage dementia obviously touched by God. There was also joy when a wife, not interested in church, was baptised and is now an active member of the church. There was also joy when a shy, anxious, would-be chaplain, became a respected, valued, unpaid member of staff taking light and joy into staff and residents.


The first chaplain I worked with was later to become Plymouth’s 'Volunteer of the year' due to the faithful work he did with one difficult resident over nearly three years. The resident accepted Christ as his Saviour shortly before he died. I had a supervision session with another chaplain, a Baptist, together with the care home manager. The manager was full of praise for all he did, “He filled a gap I did not know was there.”


I had a call from another manager asking about the chaplain who had not been in for a while and was missed. The chaplain concerned had no idea she was valued and started visiting again. This showed the importance of affirmation. Sometimes I would have everything agreed for a chaplain to visit a care home but the communication within the home had not taken place or the manager would change and the new manager would say "no thank you".


I pray that more and more isolated, frail, lonely older people, and their loved ones, both in their own homes and in care homes, will have spiritual support and a greater sense of self-worth and value from the Anna Chaplaincy ministry. I pray that they will also realise there is an eternal hope available for us.


We pray for volunteers to come forward from across the denominations, with their church leaders and church family committed to supporting them. God cares about older people. Psalm 71:9 a cry from the heart of a devout old man: "Do not cast me off in a time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails..." May we be the answer to that prayer.'