Ingrid Schultz, who recently retired as one of three chaplains at Menno Place in Abbotsford, will never forget the succinct advice one of her instructors told her during chaplaincy training: “Shut your mouth and open your heart.”
As she begins her own retirement, Schultz is reflecting on her time opening her heart in ministry to the spiritual needs of the residents of Menno Place, B.C.’s largest seniors care facility, with 750 residents. She began work at Menno Place 10 years ago, following a term as pastor of Vancouver’s First United Mennonite Church (now Peace Church on 52nd), and clinical pastoral education training at Vancouver General Hospital. She joined Emmanuel Mennonite Church upon her move to Abbotsford.
Schultz’s chaplaincy duties included making regular spiritual assessments of residents and charting them, having devotions with staff, planning and leading chapel services, training palliative care volunteers, and ministering to families after the death of loved ones. But her most rewarding activity was visiting one-on-one with the residents. She worked primarily in the Menno Home section, where about 80 percent of the residents had dementia.
Schultz believes that, despite cognitive impairment and memory loss, those in their final years still have much to offer. She suggests this is when the church can also have “dementia” regarding those elders, when potential visitors assume that someone with memory loss doesn’t know or care if anyone visits.
“As our cognitive ability diminishes, our longing for connection with God and others expands,” she says. “But exactly when that starts happening, people stop visiting. People with dementia have this deep longing for connection. We need to remind them of their area of greatness. It’s a moving from the head, which isn’t functioning very well anymore, to the heart, which is at the centre of how we relate to God and to others.”
One example she cites was a woman who had her eyes closed during an entire communion service, but at the end suddenly opened them and said, “Jesus is here.”
“She was able to experience Jesus in a way that those of us who are in head more than heart couldn’t,” Schultz says.
Schultz saw gifts being used frequently among the residents of Menno, such as at chapel services, where those of different denominations worshipped together and appreciated each other’s traditions. “We never stop contributing,” she says. “Some people could play piano, others were wonderful scripture readers or pray-ers. I asked one wonderful resident, who is 105, ‘What is our purpose?’ and he said, ‘To bring beauty into the world.’ I see people doing that.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a challenge for staff, when contact with residents was severely limited and particularly difficult when someone was dying.
She says she wasn’t allowed into the units. “I couldn’t be with people in their final hours, but I heard staff would do what chaplains [normally] did. COVID-19 has taught us more than ever that all of us need to be a community, and we need to know that we’re connected with others.”
Spending time with the elderly, Schultz says, has lessened her own fear of aging. She has found inspiration in observing elders accept the difficulties of their stage of life with grace, from going to a life of doing to just being and being loved. The phrase that one woman shared was, “Acceptance brings peace.”
As of yet, Schultz hasn’t had much time to miss her work at Menno Place, as she and a friend are currently embarking on a two-month road trip across Canada. She describes retirement as first being go-go years, then slow-go years, then no-go years, and right now she is enjoying the “go-go years.”
“There are so many things we can learn from elders,” Schultz concludes. “I hope I’ve learned the lessons, but I won’t know until I am there. Seeing residents minister using their gifts, seeing residents accepting with gratitude their diminished memory and being grateful in the midst of that—that’s what I want to remember when my time comes to go into care.”
She feels confident that her replacement at Menno Place will continue to care for the residents with love and compassion.
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in B.C.? Sent it to Amy Rinner Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org.