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Nancy Foran on a “Wisdom of Our Elders” Service

Residents of senior living facilities often are treated as recipients of worship services presented by visiting groups. Nancy Foran offers an alternative design to receive and honor the wisdom of older adults.

Nancy Foran is pastor of Raymond Village Community Church (UCC) in Raymond, Maine. During the congregation’s Vital Worship grant project year, they designed a Wisdom of Our Elders worship service. In this edited conversation, Nancy Foran explains how they did it.

What was your Vital Worship grant about?

We explored the meaning of worship through the symbolism of light and dark. We used study, conversation and community worship experiences to engage our congregation’s creative talents in art and prayer. Our goal was for every person in our congregation to touch or be touched by the grant through participating in at least one of our diverse grant experiences.

Why did you design a Wisdom of Our Elders service?

For 12 years I served part time as elder chaplain at First Congregational UCC in South Portland, Maine. I served elderly people, most of them in nursing homes. So many had been through so much, yet their attitude was “I’ve had so many blessings.”

At most senior facilities, someone comes in and does a very traditional service. We wanted to reach into the community rather than just present them with something to listen to. After all, they have so much to share.

Who came to the worship service?

We did a Sunday afternoon service at Casco Inn Residential Care Facility, an assisted living place where one of our church members lives. The staff made a huge effort to get people to come, and we had about 70 people attend—more than our average church attendance.

The average age at the Wisdom of Our Elders service was between 80 and 85. Most people used walkers or wheelchairs. One or two residents used oxygen, which we should have asked about earlier. We had brought an altar and had planned to light candles, but you can’t do that near oxygen machines. Some people there have short- term memory issues, but all seemed to remember back into the past well enough.

How was your service the same or different from typical nursing home worship services?

We had a familiar order of worship, but in place of a homily we broke into small groups to gather wisdom from residents. We chose music and Scripture readings they were likely to remember, such as Psalm 23 in the King James Version. In keeping with our grant year theme, we also read Psalm 139 excerpts that reflect on light and dark.

Did residents know the music you chose?

Our songs were “How Great Thou Art,” “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” “Give Me Oil” and “Amazing Grace.” We had a pianist and provided lyrics in large font. Our Very Occasional Men’s Choir and some Adult Choir members sang anthems and led the residents in hymns. The gusto with which residents sang was wonderful! I’m not sure you ever lose some songs, even when you lose other parts of your memory.

How else did your congregation participate?

Eight volunteers served as small group facilitators. We had lunch after church and trained them for just 15 minutes before we headed over to Casco Inn. The main training points were: Try to engage everyone in your small group. Don’t ask introverts first, but don’t leave them out. Remember that this is not a time for you to share your experiences of light and dark. Your main job is to really listen.

Every facilitator had a clipboard, pencil and paper with the same five questions, but in a different order, in case they didn’t get through all these questions:

  • What is one of the best things that ever happened to you?
  • What advice would you give us about life and how to be a better person?
  • What was a time of darkness in your life? What was a time that was very difficult for you, that was a struggle, or that made you very sad?
  • How did you get past that dark or difficult time?
  • What are you most thankful for in your life?

How did the discussions go?

We weren’t sure whether it would be all over in five minutes, but residents had a lot to say. All have stories, but often don’t have people to talk with. Residents appreciated being asked meaningful questions. Listening to this group of “elder” folks was so moving.

I chatted with one woman who felt the most important thing one could do was “travel the world.” Her very favorite place was Paris and its bakeries. Another gentleman told me that although being stationed in Pearl Harbor during World War II was difficult, he has never seen anything more beautiful than Pearl Harbor sunsets. The discussion would have been way less effective if we’d tried to do it as a whole group activity.

What did you learn from residents?

The “elders” were thankful for their loved ones—children, grandchildren and friends—God, health and oh- so-many blessings. Their best memories included the day they got married, going to Sunday school as a child, a husband coming home from the war, and family gatherings. Difficult times primarily revolved around losing a spouse, child or mother, or having family far away.

People got through those dark times by reaching out to friends, joining groups, prayer, relying on their faith, taking one day at a time and knowing that those who had died are in good hands now. Some of their wisdom:

  • On structuring one’s day: If you are going to go with the flow, it’s best if you know where the flow is going.
  • On how to approach a new day: You have a choice. You can either think of all the things that are not good about your life, or you can look outside your window and see a bird in a tree and wonder where it will fly that day and what new places it will see.
  • On facing bad days: You have to look back and remember the good days—and also remember that there are more of them ahead.
  • On why helping others is important: Because it is the right thing to do.
  • On dealing with all manner of people: Kill them with kindness.

How did you use this wisdom in the worship service?

I gathered their responses into a final corporate prayer, based on notes from facilitators.

Was this just a one-time offering?

Several folks said we should do it more regularly, maybe once a quarter. I’d like to do the gathering wisdom part again, only with different songs and readings. The goal would be not to have them just listen. If residents and staff want to help plan another service, that would be great.

To me, an important aspect of church is always to be developing community and engaging people in worship in whatever way is possible. This experience reaffirmed for me how important it is to engage people or give them a sense of personal investment

Do you have any tips on staying connected with church members who can no longer come to church?

I see part of my job as keeping these bonds strong and real, so I regularly visit them at their homes. One woman asks me to read Scripture with her. All want to hear news from church, especially about people they knew or ministries they served in. Church is really important to them. When I ask, “What do you want me to tell people at church,” most say, “I’m fine. I love them. I miss them and wish I could be back at church.” In Sunday worship, I tell what our visit was like and share what they wanted me to tell the congregation. I include them by name in prayers at church.

It’s also important to show concern for caregivers. They do so much but often don’t get much support, sometimes not even from family members. Caregivers are often more ignored than the elders they care for. In the last year I’ve been trying to get contact information for people related to our snowbirds.  Many adult children don’t think of calling us to say, ‘My father is in the hospital in Florida” or “My mom has been moved to a nursing home.”


Read more about how Raymond Village Community Church explored faith and worship through the symbolism of light and dark.