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Celebrating 30 years of Service with Senior Adults
More than a Sing-along
Dawn C. Wooderson, Ph.D.
Millie Brown is sitting in her wheelchair in the activity room of Heritage Place Health-Care and Rehabilitation Center. Up until a few years ago, she was a member of her church’s senior adults choir, helped with Meals-On-Wheels, and served on the board of several community charities. Her late husband was a child of the Depression who had spent carefully and invested wisely. Together, they had been able to give much to the church building and music funds. Mrs. Brown is mentally alert, but a stroke has caused changes in her body and left her in need of daily care. She and about 40 other residents have gathered for our weekly hymn-sing.
I always walk in early to set up my keyboard and put the large-print hymnbooks on the dining tables. However early I arrive, there are already members of our new congregation seated in their “pews” or lying on their wheeled-beds. Although these people have lost much of their former life-styles, they still have 24 hours in each day. As one gentleman in the group said, “Time is the one thing that no one here has lost.” The hymn-service is one of many programs that fill the hours of the days, weeks, months, and years.
Mrs. Brown and her new neighbors arrive early by choice or because the nursing home staff had already started their many trips to help less mobile
residents from their rooms to the activity room. The congregants have plenty of time to chat, page through the hymnbooks, and listen to me warming up by playing through a few favorite gospel songs. What started years ago as a request for a community sing-along at the senior adult community has now become a hymn-service of discovery. Each week we sing, listen, read the poetry, and celebrate new meanings in the texts of many hymns and gospel songs.
New ministries — Different questions
As I prepare each session, several questions stay with me:
§ What do these melodies and texts really mean to these people in these circumstances?
§ If I were sitting in that wheel-chair or lying under that sheet, what would I need?
§ If those people were my parents, what would I do?
§ How may I best serve Mrs. Brown whom I know and the other residents whose life-stories I do not know?
Reflections on the texts
Words from the hymn texts take on new meanings in this parish of souls in their later years. People bring their varied life histories of faith and associations with organized religion and music into an unknown life of dependence on strangers and new friends. Many people are alert, observing and analyzing their surroundings just as they have always done. Disease has invaded the brains of others in the group and thinking and speaking is more difficult for them.
We’re a diverse group of Christians from many varied interpretations of the Scriptures and from many levels of commitment. But when we sing a hymn together, we become connected. The differences among us no longer matter. From the lines of poetry, we extract mini-sermons. The melody carries the text and helps all of us to remember the ideas presented in the Scriptures. One chaplain put it this way: The song texts become the King James Version for people who can no longer remember the Scripture.
Medical research has shown that music communicates long after language skills have been eroded by dementia. Since reading is a skill learned early in life, people with cognitive impairment often can read the texts of the hymns and sing all the verses, even though they may not recognize any of their loved ones or say what they would like to have for lunch. For Mrs. Brown and everyone else in the room, the hymns and gospel songs are the reminders of their Christian faith and God’s love to them — now, whatever their circumstances.
A dialog with the texts
Here are a few examples of how the texts come to life and provide the outline for experiences of reflection and worship in our hymn-services.
After Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art, the most frequently requested hymn has been . . .
When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
Facing the end of life is an everyday event for these congregants. The hereafter is closer and there is more than enough time for reflection, to think about one’s life-choices — what was done and what was left undone.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy . . . ( . . . even for me, now, at the end of my life, with all my imperfections?)
There’s a kindness in His justice . . . (I didn’t go to church much, you know. Didn’t feel comfortable. I carried on a bit, too. But every now and then I think about meeting my Maker.)
. . . For the love of God is broader than the measure of one’s mind,
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
(Is it well with my soul?) It is well with my soul.
In later life, sleepless nights are more common. Residents have many hours alone with their thoughts and the unpredictable sounds of the night.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty; Early in the morning my song shall rise to Thee.
Early in the morning becomes 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. The hours before sunrise might be filled with anxiety; they can also be enriched through meditation and prayer. We talk openly about these times and offer substitutes for all the concerns of “What will my doctor say?” “Will my daughter come to visit?” or “Is she going to die tonight?”
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end, Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend! O worship the King.
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, be Thou our guide.
Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest . . . Great is Thy Faithfulness, dear Lord, to me.
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art; Thou my best thought,
Early in the morning (whenever I cannot sleep) my song shall rise to Thee.
The members of this small parish and their families are making many decisions:
Should I have the surgery? Should I have chemotherapy? What about that experimental drug? Who’s going to mow the lawn? Should I sell the house now? How will we pay for all this?
So we sing many songs of God’s guidance:
All the way my Savior leads me,
what have I to ask beside?
Whate’er I do, where’er I be, still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah . . .
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Spiritual growth doesn’t stop at age 91 or become less important because of dramatic changes in physical health and circumstances. For many older adults, attention to the life of the spirit – the quest for spiritual peace — intensifies. They search for greater understanding of the Christian messages of giving, hope, and peace. Their quest is our inspiration:
Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee (How can I show your Love today?)
Just a Closer Walk with Thee . . .
Daily walking close to Thee
At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand, Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.
Surely Goodness and Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
I want to pass it on!
At the hymn-services at Heritage Place and other health-care centers, I watch expressions change; smiles replace looks of distress and despondency. Some people sing along, others listen. Amid the walkers, wheel-chairs, and geri-beds, pill trays and oxygen tanks, we share poignant dialog with the absent authors of these texts and very special sacred moments with God.
Mrs. Brown and Heritage Place are composites of hundreds of people and many places that have enriched my life.
At a time of much change and many losses,
There is no reason why people should lose their songs.
Dawn Wooderson is author of Songs of Faith, a series of four companion large-print hymnbooks with two sing-along CDs published by WoodSong Publishing.
The sing-along CDs present Kurt Kaiser’s piano accompaniment with choir, lower keys, standard harmonies, suitable tempos for singing along. Words books 1 and 2 correlated with CDs 1 and 2.
Melody and Accompaniment books in lower keys, with guitar chords, additional Scripture readings, spiral binding, very clear notation, standard harmonies.
To see a list of the 90 hymns and gospel songs and see the 4 hymnbook page formats, visit www.MusicByWoodSong.com
To order Songs of Faith call 303-506-4897 or e-mail email@example.com.
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