A Day in the Life of an Anna Chaplain

    26 Sept. 2017

    This summer Stella Wiseman, Winchester’s Marketing and Content Editor, spent a day in Alton shadowing Rev’d Rachel Sturt, one of the Diocese’s Anna Chaplains, people who are there to promote the spiritual welfare of older men and women.

    The day began with morning prayer, before a brief parish meeting and on to Borovere Care Home where Rachel takes a regular communion service. “I try to arrive early to set up as I then go to fetch some of the people and it can take a long time,” said Rachel. There were already a couple of people waiting in a small lounge and we walked round to meet the rest and encourage people to come. There was no forcing, for Anna Chaplains go where they are asked and not where not invited, but many of the people Rachel meets here welcome her and want to join in. It doesn’t matter what church background someone has – one of the regulars is a member of the Salvation Army and though she doesn’t receive communion she likes to come to the service. Another, aged 102, is a Roman Catholic but happy to receive in an Anglican setting.

    The service is always a shortened version with a short reading and address and hymns chosen from the booklet ‘Hymns we’ve always loved’. The participants chose the hymns and Rachel played the appropriate backing track which made singing much easier. The importance of music in helping people with memory loss is well documented – it seems to reach even those people in late stages of dementia. It is certainly the case that some of those taking part have some form of memory loss – “I’ve not got a memory, I’ve got a forgettery,” says one – but for these people at least the communion service seemed to dispel the confusion of the present and allowed the participants to engage with the past, the present and the eternal.

    Rachel says of this: “To some extent it is a mystery how people engage with Holy Communion. There are obviously long-held memories and familiar routines and words remain when the short-term memory fails. This is where it helps to belong to a church with a liturgy that is fairly fixed. The older generation often developed the habit of coming to church regularly rather than just when they felt like it. “As far as the understanding goes, I’m not sure. But God loves us all of our earthly lives, before birth and after earthly death, so we have to take this on trust. None of us has a complete understanding anyway.”

    In Borovere I encountered friendship and a lot of laughter, pain, illness, grief and grace. There was the woman who was anxious to hear news of her ill nephew, the woman who was grieving for her son-in-law and feeling her daughter’s pain, the desperately ill former midwife lying in bed. Rachel first led an uplifting communion but then came alongside those in pain, giving them time and focus, praying for them when asked, forcing nothing and offering much. In caring for older people, time and respect is vital and often in short supply. Anna Chaplains seek to redress this and to offer spiritual support when asked.

    And then on to the Methodist Church for lunch, via a retired undertaker who talked about the time she would wash the bodies laid out in the house where the family business is still run. Alton Methodist Church has been running a lunch club for 20 years. Twice a month half-a-dozen volunteers cook a meal for local people for the incredibly low price of £3.50 a head. We joined 40 or so women – and one man – in tucking in to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by fruit and Angel Delight, a meal which was not just nutritious but provided much-needed company, a fact reflected in the talk Rachel gave about the delight in eating with friends.

    In the afternoon we were welcomed into the All Saints Hard of Hearing Group for a strawberry cream tea, a quiz, music courtesy of keyboardist Trevor Burch – with songs which we could join in with – and comedy from resident comedian Mike. Hearing impairment can be isolating and is often a problem for older people, some of whom may already be isolated, so a club such as the one at All Saints Church, Alton, can provide a vital link to other people.

    During the course of the day I met a 96-year-old former Lancaster Bomber wireless operator whose memories of the rest of his crew were both sharp and poignant, a 102-year-old silent with grief, a woman of almost 100 who had taken part in a sponsored walk a few months before. I met people to whom age hadn’t been kind, people with infirmities, people who lived alone, people who thoroughly enjoyed getting out and being sociable, people who wanted to talk, people continuing their spiritual journey.

    Anna Chaplains are there to listen, to offer support and friendship to anyone who wants it. It is, as Debbie Thrower, the first Anna Chaplain, describes it “like planting a flag in the middle of town and saying ‘older people matter’”.

    At Borovere Care Home

    At Borovere Care Home

    Rachel Speaking at the church lunch

    All Saints Hard of Hearing Tea