An Ash Wednesday story

Last week, on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, I went to visit D. I was taking her communion at home because she has been housebound since October when she had a fall. She can now walk around the house and back garden but she has lost her confidence in going out the front door. She has been waiting for months for a 3 wheel zimmer thingy but the wheels of the Social Care Dept seem to grind rather slowly. (Yes, I’ve written about her before and she still hasn’t had a bath or shower but is making do with a ‘dicht’.)

As it was Ash Wednesday I thought I’d take some ash along with me and use some of the liturgy we’d used in the morning. (Transporting ash is not easy, let me say, and I forgot the lemon.) We sat in her lounge looking out on to the garden where St Francis and a stork look down upon the pond. D is a third-order Franciscan, living a Franciscan way of life in her own home. She is eternally optimistic and never complains and I see St Francis in her every time we meet. After the service we spent some time in silence listening to the birds outside and then D said she wanted to get something. She came back with a bible and opened it up to the front cover. Then she took her thumb and rubbed it on her forehead and transferred the smudge of ash into the front page of her bible. There on the cream paper were rows of black and grey smudges from Ash Wednesdays past with the year underneath. One year there was a bit of paper stuck in with a smudge on it because D had been away that year but she didn’t want to miss it.

It was a beautiful sight, those rows of smudgy crosses. They represented all the prayers for repentance, the reminder of ashes of hopelessness. Remember child that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Some were quite dark, some barely visible. Thumbprints of ashes past.

I came home and did the same in my bible.

How much do we care for our elderly?

D is 90. She is a Franciscan tertiary who lives alone simply and with a good network of friends. She is very independent and sharp as a tack, with few health problems considering her age, and volunteers regularly at a centre providing care for the elderly. (She didn’t think of herself as elderly!) That is, until a few weeks ago when she came downstairs in the morning and opened her curtains, got a sharp pain above her hip and fell, hitting her coffee table on the way down. Luckily she had her phone in her dressing gown pocket so was able to call a neighbour, who phoned an ambulance and left her lying until the ‘experts’ came. She was taken into hospital and admitted to the Acute Assessment.

Her next of kin phoned a church member so we knew about it straight away and I popped in to see her the next day. (No visitors, she’d said, because she didn’t want to be a nuisance but I told her I didn’t count.) They said she was a bit dehydrated but they sorted that quickly but nobody seemed to know why she’d fallen. Without doing an x-ray they were certain it was not a broken bone so they treated her with painkillers. Physios came and helped her with some exercises and tried to get her walking but she really had quite a lot of pain and had lost her confidence. With the zimmer she could manage but didn’t cope well with a stick. So they kept her in for about a week before discharging her with a zimmer. She still didn’t know what was wrong with her.

A friend came to take her home to a dark and cold house with no food in the fridge. Since then (over two weeks ago) she has seen a nurse every morning who comes to put a patch on her hip for pain. That’s it. Until 2 days ago when a trolley arrived she was unable to feed herself because she had no way of carrying food or drinks from the kitchen to her seat and couldn’t stand for any length of time in the kitchen. D’s neighbours and friends had to come in several times a day to make food for her. The hospital had also arranged for a cushion which came with the trolley. It was covered in plastic and sweaty to sit on. D has had no other help.

When I was visiting yesterday I discovered that D has not had a shower since she got out of hospital because she is unable to climb into her bath. She has had to make do with a wipe down herself. She still has awful pain and is stuck sitting all day on a cushion on a low couch watching TV. She has never been given exercises to do at home, nor does she know what is actually wrong with her. No x-rays, no scans = no diagnosis.

Then this morning I heard on the radio that the NHS is cutting back on unnecessary treatments which cost money. One of those unnecessary treatments is x-rays for lower back pain. And I bet if you’re 90 you’re even less likely to get one.

holding-hands-elderlyD doesn’t appear to have a Social Worker, Occupational Health worker, Care assistant, anyone to whom she can phone and ask for help. The nurses who come in the morning (seldom the same one) only have been told to put her patch on and that’s it.  Her GP comes back from holiday tomorrow so she is going to try her. We’ve helped her write down all the questions she needs to ask. Like: who will help me have a shower? can I get a chair to help the pain? are there other aids which might make life easier for me at the moment? what is wrong with me and how can I help it improve?

D is fortunate in a way. She has a community of friends from church and the Franciscans, as well as some super neighbours who can pop in and do shopping and keep her company. What she really wants is her independence back. And she wants to know what’s wrong with her and will it get better. It’s the not knowing that causes worry and sleepless nights.

But what about the other folk, I’m left wondering? What about those without communities of support? What about the forgotten ones sent home from hospital with no way of feeding or bathing themselves? More cutbacks means less care and more vulnerable people. Its just not good enough. And it makes me very sad and more than a little angry. I love the NHS, I really do. I’ll defend it to the end and I’d pay more taxes if I knew the money was going to the vulnerable and not management. But why are we not getting something as simple as communication right? I know there is help out there but I just don’t know how to access it for D.

I did a funeral on Saturday for a lady who was ill at home for a long time, cared for by her husband. He has about 30 items they have been ‘loaned’ over the last year to help her: a reclining chair, toilet support, cushions, hospital bed, rails, grabbers etc. He wants them taken away now for someone else to use. They can’t say when that will be. I’m tempted to hire a van and just get over there and fill it up for D.

In which Ruth asks a tricky question about money and the church

Stewardship is dealt with by different churches in many different ways. Some favour the annual letter, signed by the priest, pleading for a much-needed injection of cash for some project and for everyone to consider increasing their giving. Then there are the different schemes which churches buy in to which involve bible study or invitation suppers. Some clergy do annual stewardship sermons either on one named day or over a month. All well and good.

giving envelopesBut something has recently come to my attention and I’d like your advice. Like most clergy I have no idea how much people give to church. Some give by Standing Order through their bank, some have a set of weekly envelopes which they bring to church, (I’ve heard of one person here who does both!) and others pop in a fiver or a tenner – or sometimes a few coins. I’ve noticed that the elderly favour the envelope method. Some even bring a pile of them if they’ve been absent for a few weeks and that’s how it should be.

However, we have noticed that some don’t bring a pile in if they’ve been off for a few weeks. But they’re elderly and so sweet that nothing is said. We are grateful for what we receive and we shouldn’t complain. Then there are those who are housebound. Many of those receive communion monthly and more visits from time to time. A few of them will hand over their envelope when you are there but these are really in the minority. I’ve just assumed that the others give through their Bank. But we have recently found out that they don’t. Many of them don’t give anything at all. Some have had the envelopes for the past few years but have never handed in a single one! (By the way, I’ve no idea who these people are nor do I want to know.)

The thing is… I don’t think people mean to withhold their collection. I think they are just forgetful. I don’t think people deliberately withdraw their giving to the church. I think they just get confused. Now you might all be yelling at your screen just now with fists flying and screaming, “Ruth! They are old. They’ve probably given all their lives! Let them off with it now. Who care if they don’t pop in a fiver every now again?” And I know that. My heart knows that and my heart bleeds. The widow’s mite is ringing in my ears.    But, and it is a big BUT, what if your congregation has more than 50% , or 75%, who are elderly and housebound? What if the future of your little flock relies on everyone giving their fair share? What if your church is at risk because so many givers have either died or just forgotten to give?

Is anyone getting this or am I just being mean? And why are we so polite that we can’t talk about this in church? Has anyone out there dealt with this? I know that some of these elderly people are not hard up. These are not breadline people. But I just don’t know how to improve the giving among those who have just forgotten to give.

An altogether quieter funeral

Today is the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. I was not a fan but I’ve always been taught that ‘if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all.’ I don’t always manage to hold to that tenet but today I shall.

holding hands elderlyToday instead, I shall think of Ivy. Ivy was an elderly member of this congregation. Ivy was lost. I mean that when I first came here Ivy was not at home and we had no contacts to find out where she have moved to. I think it took a year to find her in a local care home. She was estranged from a nephew, the only member of her family left. By the time I got to visit her she was very deaf and had dementia so could not understand who I was or why I was there. We held hands instead.

Ivy died a few months ago and we learned from her lawyer that Ivy had planned her funeral, chosen her hymns, and even sending a car to the care home to pick up any staff who’d like to come. I think about 8 members of staff came which was pretty impressive, I thought. The only other people there were members of Christ Church, many of whom had never met her but knew her name from the prayer list. Usually at a funeral my homily tells the story of the deceased for it is there we learn all the things we wish we’d known before they died. I do this in the hope that we do tell the stories before its too late. But sadly, for Ivy there was little information. And even better, the stories we did have all conflicted with one another. One story was that she had lost her hearing during the war. Another that she had contracted measles as a youngster which left her deaf. Another that she inherited it from her mother. And her parents died either in a plane crash, or on holiday, or when they moved to Falkirk. I think Ivy enjoyed telling stories. And I’m told she did it well.

Later the lawyer contacted us to say that Ivy had left all her money to Christ Church. Ivy loved her church and I think it became her family. She had no children of her own and she felt that the relatives she did have were only ‘friendly’ because they wanted her money. Ivy was very fond of a previous Rector and knew that if it weren’t for the church she wouldn’t have any friends at all. The lawyer did tell us that it probably wouldn’t amount to very much. Ivy didn’t own her own home so it would be just savings after all the other agencies had their cut.  The lawyer also said that there some personal effects which were to come to us.

So this week, before the Vestry meeting, we gathered to look through the contents of an old suitcase and a large brown box. It was full of VladimirTretchikoffChineseGpaintings which were done by Ivy’s late husband. Mostly they were copies of other paintings, including a ‘Renoir’ and the ‘blue lady’. But there were also some of flowers and landscapes. One of the portraits had us guessing who Masel was until someone pointed out it was a self-portrait. (Get it?!) There was also an album of cigarette cards, full sets. And an album of photos and cuttings from the newspapers of events that obviously meant something to her. And of course, there was a photograph album and that is the saddest thing of all. We don’t know who the people are and it seems so hard to just throw them away. The paintings can be sold at the summer fair, the cigarette cards perhaps sold, but the photos which tell Ivy’s story lie on the meeting room table waiting their fate.

Any suggestions what to do with them?

So today while the country focuses on a very large funeral which costs a lot of dosh, let us think of Ivy. A woman who was someone in her day and ended up with dementia. By circumstances alone, Ivy ended up alone with just a few visitors and a few mourners. I wish I’d known her before she became bewildered. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

Who cares about the elderly and alone?

I worry about the elderly. I especially worry about some of the elderly in my own little flock. I worry about the ones who have no family.

My own grandparents had children to care for them when they became frail. None of the children lived too far, or if they did they visited regularly and kept in touch. Grandchildren visited often – often against their will it has to be said, but that’s another story. We didn’t have a choice in the good old days.

But what of the elderly who have no children?  In the past month I’ve had dealings with two such people. One was a lady who had no relatives except a distant nephew from whom she was estranged. She had dementia and was in a care home. I visited her but she had no idea who I was and it was difficult to find out any of her story because she was confused and gave all sorts of variations.  Her family had all died in a plane crash, or all died at sea – one of the two, she told me. And then people at church would tell me her family lived in Falkirk all their lives! She had made arrangements for her funeral though, although nobody knew this until after she died. The only people at the Crematorium were carers from the Home and some members of Christ Church. There was little story to be told of her life and loves. Known to God alone.

The other person is a lady from Christ Church who is in hospital at the moment. She lives in a rather nice Abbeyfield Home near the church where she says nobody talks to her. At 93 she knows her memory is going and she gets forgetful, but she always has a smile and a mischievous look in her eyes. Last year she told me some hair-raising stories about her time during the war in Egypt. Her beloved husband is dead and she has no other family. Last week she had a fall and broke her pelvis so is in our brand, new lovely hospital. There she lies in a room on her own, not really knowing what is going on because her doctor is a ‘foreign gentleman’ and she couldn’t hear what he was saying.  Since her admission she has gone down hill rapidly and visitors now tell me she is unresponsive and almost unconscious. Nurses tell them it is just because she is on heavy pain medication. Our little flock are great at looking out for her and have brought her flowers, sweeties, magazines, cards, fruit and toiletries. They all lie around her unopened. When I visited her on Sunday the nurse roused her and she muttered “Oh I’m so glad to see you!” before lapsing back into a deep sleep holding tight to my hand.

I sat with her for a while, praying and watching. Sometimes that is all we can do. I glanced at her charts lying on the window sill where it says Alert every day. Alert? Visitors for the past seven days have found her asleep and unable to be roused. When is she alert? First thing in the morning? A nurse brings in a drip of fluids but because I am saying the Lord’s Prayer she backs out again, never to be found again. I ask other nurses if I can speak to someone about her but her named nurse is busy elsewhere. I wait for 30 minutes before I have to leave.

So I am left worrying about my little poppet lying in bed with no family to enquire about her. Several times I’ve tried to find a nurse to speak to but have been unable. Phone calls all elicit the same response – “She’s doing fine, very well.”  Her next-of-kin is listed as a woman nobody knows. I worry and I don’t know what to do.  How awful to be alone with nobody to speak up for you, nobody to tell her story, nobody to tell the medical staff what she is like, nobody to tell them that she doesn’t like potatoes or chicken but she loves cakes and a wee glass of wine.

As clergy we used to be able to wander hither and thither in hospital, our dog collars gaining us entry to wards at any time of the day or night. That is not the case any more. Ward doors are locked and buzzers seldom answered. “Lunch time is protected time for the patients” I’m told.  “But I could help to feed them while the food is still warm,” I mutter to frosty faces. Many times I’ve had to give up on visiting because I couldn’t gain access to the ward and couldn’t come at the visiting times.

Any clergy out there found a way around this?  I guess I should be trying to find the Chaplain.


A week of reflecting

It has been a busy old week. One of those weeks when you work from 8am to 8pm or later most days but achieve lots.

On Wednesday I had my Ministerial Review with the Bishop and it was really good. The preparation took a couple of days last week spending time reflecting on my ministry, my strengths and weaknesses, the time spent with family, friends and the job I love, where I am now and where I want to be, and more. +Brian was good at digging into the bits that needed more investigation and incredibly supportive. I came away feeling very affirmed which was good. And with some thoughts to ponder on personal development.

On Friday I spent the day on the Crisis in Ministry course looking at working with the elderly. We had to bring along an ‘issue’ to share and I had a list. Mostly it is to do with people who are not managing in their own homes and it is clear to me that they need help but frustration that as we are not ‘family’ we don’t have the right to phone GPs, Social Workers, Community Health teams and discuss how they can be helped. We had a social worker in attendance who helped us with answers to the problems. Inevitably the subject of my dad came up and I’ve come away feeling angry at the poor care he gets and guilt that I don’t see him as often as I should. Lots to ponder.

Today it is our Overseas Sale and lots of underlying politics which I fear may mar the day. Money raised will go to Links and Mary’s Meals. It is also our Cafe so you will be fed well if you pop in to St Mark’s today. Money from the Cafe will go to our Organ Appeal.