Day 24: “Sponsor” a Senior in a Nursing Home

I don’t know of any program where you can choose to sponsor a senior in a nursing home–that is, receive a picture of him/her, write letters, send money for critical needs items and gifts, and go on a mission trip to visit.

I am not aware of any program where you can do that, but, as a believer, you can do that anyway, through the power of Christ in you.

Visiting seniors in nursing homes is one of the most convenient, inexpensive, and desperately needed ministries you can do.  Unless you live in a rural area, there is probably a nursing home within 30 minutes of where you live.  In that nursing home are dozens of people who need far more care and love than they are receiving.

This is not because of a failure on the part of our government to provide quality nursing home care; if we had the best care for seniors in the world, it would not be adequate at the institutional level.  That would be something like saying if we had the best day cares in the world, children wouldn’t need their parents or other adults, in their lives.

Seniors need contact with humans other than those being paid to serve them.  Regardless of whether they are receiving quality care or poor care, they need an outside friend to talk to them.  Even if you don’t have a dime to your name, you will be like Santa and fill their wishlist just by visiting them.  Nearly all seniors in nursing homes want a visitor.  And for many seniors, this will never happen unless you go.

The biggest gift most seniors want you to give them is the gift of time.  They want you to talk to them, touch their hand, give them a hug.  They want to see, hear, and feel the presence of someone who cares enough to visit them even inside the often lonely lockdown world of a nursing home.

There are two ways to help in the mission field of nursing homes:

  • Be a part of or host an activity (i.e., worship music, juggling act, painting nails)
  • Speak to a manager or coordinator at a local nursing home and ask for the name of a lonely senior who you could visit regularly (i.e., once a week or month), “sponsoring” that senior with Christ’s love and attention

Note: I’ll just use the term “nursing home”, but you can also visit assisted living homes, where seniors are usually more alert/capable and the facility is usually brighter.  Or you can visit daycare facilities for seniors, where families drop them off to spend time socializing or to relieve the burden of care.  These seniors require more care and often have disabilities.  All seniors need someone to love them–even and maybe especially those who live in less-desirable nursing homes or who have severe disabilities/dementia.

Be a part of or host an activity

You don’t have to be an expert in anything to host an activity at the nursing home.  It doesn’t matter much if you fumble when you play the piano or miss a few notes when you sing.  You can be pretty much terrible at whatever you do so long as you greet the seniors and ask them a little bit about their lives.  🙂  (But be prepared for honest comments from one or two.)

I think seniors especially like:

  • Pieces of paper to take back to their room to remind them of the moment (i.e., a printed copy of a song, a flier from a juggling show, or a bookmark after a game of Bingo).
  • Small gifts (make sure you have approval of what you bring with nursing home staff first) like Hershey’s kisses, yarn bookmarks, cute simple crafts made into animals (like pom poms with jiggly eyes), and photographs
  • Time to spend one-on-one in a greeting or after a performance

If it sounds too intimidating to put on a show for seniors, you can join the residents for a meal or play a game of Bingo with them.  Or, simply bring a pet (with permission) and you will be a wildly popular hero (well, your pet will be, but they will like you as the ‘carrier’ of the pet).  Anything soft they can pet delights them so much, like a dog, cat, rabbit, or guinea pig.  Of course don’t bring an animal that bites, scratches, doesn’t do well with strangers, isn’t up to date on shots, or has a mean nature.  (Good-natured, fat, old lapdogs are just about perfect.  But don’t expect your dog to want to come back home with you.  Ever.)

Remember to bring the light of Christ into the nursing home with you.  Ask seniors if they have any prayer requests before or after a performance, and pray for them . . or read a Scripture verse to them or share a story from your life about how Christ has shared His love with you.  Never hide your shine!  🙂

Sponsor a Senior

For a deep connection with a senior, spend time visiting him/her every week, two weeks, or month.  (If you’re able to visit less frequently, consider sending a card or postcard every week, even if all it has is a sentence about how much you care or something going on in your life.)

Some seniors are easy to talk to.  They are friendly and love sharing about their lives.  Other seniors are in a lot of pain, or are dealing with a life of regrets, and they are cranky, sarcastic, or more closed.  Still other seniors are struggling with dementia, and they are often confused and may forget who you are from week to week, and may not be able to hold intelligible conversation.  Which type of senior do you think needs to be sponsored?

The correct answer is, all of them.  Whether a senior is loving or abrasive or bewildered, (s)he is made in the image of God and needs your love and support.  Even if someone seems to not remember you from week to week, or tells you the same stories over and over, I believe the soul can soak in what the mind cannot.  Even people who are completely paralyzed or in their last stages of life living immobile on a bed can sense God’s love.  I know it.  His Presence permeates not just our minds and hearts but our souls as well.

So . . what can you do when sponsoring a senior?

Really, if you do nothing besides talk to and listen to them, most seniors will love you more than you can imagine.  In fact, you may have to tell them when you come in at what time you’ll be leaving, because they will likely be very disappointed when you leave, and may be a bit frightened if you leave with little warning.

Of course, you can do more than talk to and listen to them.  But that in and of itself will be what most seniors deeply desire.  We are sociable beings.  God didn’t create Adam to live on the planet by himself.  We long to be loved by others.

It’s a good idea at the end of your visits to tell the senior you are coming back.  They are often in a lot of distress about whether or not you will return.  If you know what day you’re coming back, tell them–and please, try to stick to it.  Your visit means the world to them.  At the end of a visit, you will also want to reassure the senior that you had a good time and that you really like talking to him/her.  I think many seniors are afraid they will lose you as a friend, or that you’ll be offended by something and never come back.

It’s a thoughtful idea to give a senior your cell phone number, once you have a relationship with him/her.  You may be his/her only point of contact outside the nursing home for help or simply a comforting call.

If you want to give a little extra sponsorship, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Send post-cards or cards in between visits.  You don’t have to write much in them; they will be treasured.
  • Buy warm, fuzzy socks or gloves.  (Beware of slippers, which have poor traction, even with anti-slip dots on the bottom.  Slippers have to have serious grips to be considered.)
  • For some seniors, basic necessities are not being provided by the meager amount of allowance they have each month.  Many people don’t realize that seniors in nursing homes have very little income provided by the government to pay for things like having their hair washed, new underwear and socks, pajamas, or new clothes.
  • If you have a senior who likes to write, you can buy a journal, post-it notes pens, mechanical pencils, or a dry erase board.
  • A watch (easy read digital may be needed)
  • A large-print Bible
  • For seniors who read, books
  • A pancake breakfast, baked goodie, ice cream in a bowl, or easily digested snacks (make sure you check about any dietary restrictions first with staff).  Be careful not to give things that could be choking hazards like M ‘n’ M’s, nuts, or popcorn.  If you wouldn’t give it to a two-year-old, you probably shouldn’t give it to a senior.  Be aware that seniors with dementia may eat everything at once, so one Little Debbie snack would be better than a whole package.
  • Drink packets that dissolve in water  (Again, check about dietary restrictions first with staff)
  • A blanket or throw
  • If you have a pet, and you get permission, definitely bring it.
  • If you have a child or children, bring them.  You might want to bring one child first, and make sure your kids know (and agree to) be calmer and quieter than usual.  🙂
  • Bring any kind of craft you make.
  • Bring a basket or bowl with decorations inside.  This is a great idea I saw recently in the room of a senior I visit!  Her niece had brought her a porcelain basket with wrapped candy inside.  (Again, make sure you have permission and watch out for candy that can be easily choked on.)  You can fill a basket with fake flower petals, potpourri, or even crayons.  (For a patient with dementia or who rooms with someone who has dementia, you can just bring an empty basket or one with tissue paper.)
  • Bring craft items like yarn, a plastic loom, crayons, construction paper, big beads, child-safe scissors, sticker or coloring books, etc. for a senior who likes to do crafts.
  • Bring Word Search books or big dominoes
  • Bring a framed picture of something happy and personally meaningful to your senior.  It could be a picture of your family, a colorful array of flowers, a fishing dock, a puppy, etc.
  • Bring a stuffed animal or Beanie Baby.  The majority of seniors I know in nursing homes LOVE LOVE LOVE dogs.  You can just about not go wrong with dogs.  😉
  • Bring a clock to sit on the mantle (but make sure it’s not heavy so it wouldn’t hurt someone if it fell).
  • Bring a no-flame candle like a Scentsy candle.
  • Bring decorations that cling to the window or have suction cups that stick to the window.
  • Bring seasonal and holiday items.  Many seniors love celebrating holidays and seasons, and they feel more secure if they know what time of year it is.
  • Bring something a child made like a card or art project.
  • Bring a calendar, especially a calendar with photographs of your family.

Remember though, most seniors will be deeply content just to have your presence.

Nursing homes can be overwhelming to walk into.  They often stink and there are many troubling sights.  There are seniors wandering the halls, a few trying to get out of the building, a few babbling things that don’t make sense.  There are seniors near death and you may even see a young person in the nursing home because of severe mental or physical issues.  Nursing homes feel depressing.

But Jesus is not depressing.  And He can go with you wherever you go.  When you visit a senior in a nursing home, you may be their only point of contact for meeting Christ Jesus all month long.

All seniors, whether in great facilities or poor facilities, whether able or disabled, whether friendly or harsh, whether clear-minded or confused, and with whatever their beliefs are, need someone to visit them from the outside.

Jesus did not command us to go to people when it’s convenient, or when they’re likable, or when they’re in a clean room.  As Christians, we have to step up and act like Christ and reach the unreached–even if it means doing something far out of our comfort zone.  Remember that the visit that’s far out of your comfort zone may be the most comforting thing that has happened to a senior in years.

“I was sick, and you cared for me.”

(King Jesus on Judgment Day to the believers, quoted in Matthew 25:36)

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