Visiting the nursing home is a sacred ministry Print
Seeing with Jesus' Eyes
Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

Seeing with Jesus' Eyes by Fr. Donald Lange

A nursing home is a holy place. It is a sacred space because it is home for the aged and handicapped who need special love and care. They also need the gift of our visits. When we visit them, we show that we care about them.

A painting depicts a long line of people patiently waiting to be fed at a soup kitchen. Over the head of one of them is a halo. This person is Jesus. If we look carefully we may notice that Jesus is smiling. This painting reminds us that when we help someone in need, we help Jesus. We may even make him smile.

Pope John Paul II stressed the importance of visiting the elderly when he said, ''I express deep appreciation to all those persons who find the time and the way to approach and assist the elderly who are most in need because they are abandoned or forgotten. Christian faith helps us to see the face of Jesus in the person in need."

Pope John Paul's remarks remind us that when we visit a person in a nursing home, we visit Jesus. We respect the nursing home resident as a unique person created in God's image. We listen attentively even if we have heard the story before. Listening is an act of love which shouts that we care. It allows the nursing home resident to relive the story or share current thoughts.

We can also read to residents, write letters, share our favorite Bible passage, pray with them or share stories of the good old days.

Between generations

Most residents love visitors who are children. Such visits can be teachable moments for the children and visitors. I remember an elderly lady who lit up like a Christmas tree when she was visited by her great grandchild. "Bambino, bambino,'' she shouted enthusiastically. Suddenly she seemed 30 years younger.

We can invite children to draw and bring their masterpieces to residents to brighten their room and spirits. A non-Catholic resident told me that she studied the drawing of Jesus on the crucifix that children made out of an egg box. In a voice of suffering, she told me that she decided not to complain anymore. I was deeply moved.

We can share news about our family and ask them about theirs. We can bring a photo album or work with them on a common project. A resident named Marge and I collaborated on making a poster entitled Beatitudes for the Aged. She received permission to proudly display it in her nursing home.

If the staff approves and the residents are up to it, we might share lunch, a drive, ice cream, beauty parlor, or a parade. As we do so, we should enjoy it too. If we cannot visit, we can call, or send a card or note.

Bringing, receiving love

We can say hello to other residents who may not receive many visitors. This brightens their day and enables us to observe other resident's care. Perhaps we can occasionally thank those who work faithfully in nursing homes. They deserve it.

Whether we are a new or a veteran visitor, we can check with the nursing home for visiting guidelines and tips for improving visiting skills.

When we visit, we often receive more than we give. We discover that the residents are survivors. They have survived heartbreak, deaths of loved ones, illnesses, and near death. They share gifts of faith, humor, understanding, wisdom, and friendship. Their experiences are written with grace on their faces and in stories they long to share.

Some of the residents are frail and forgotten and linger like the last leaf of autumn on the tree of loneliness. They long for visitors who seldom come and who never stay. Perhaps their family or friends are dead or live too far away. A compassionate visitor can help them to live with their cross of loneliness.

Others are regularly visited by children, friends, or other Christians. I am often touched by their loyalty and love. Some residents are so frail and weak that all they can do is pray. We can pray with them and invite them to make their suffering redemptive by uniting it with the suffering of Jesus.

Nursing home residents offer a preview of life that we may someday experience. They appreciate our visits. So does Jesus. At the judgment I pray that Christ will say to nursing home visitors, "When I was lonely in a nursing home, you visited me. Enter into the fullness of eternal life."

A nursing home is a sacred place because special people live and work there. To be a visitor requires a faithful response to a special grace. Perhaps such a person is you. If you become a visitor, you may make Jesus smile. And its benefits are heavenly.

Fr. Donald Lange is pastor emeritus of the Diocese of Madison.