A conversation on seniors’ ministry with chaplain Joanne Webster
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on seniors’ and long-term care homes, with the advanced age of residents making them particularly vulnerable to the virus. Since 2018, the Rev. Joanne Webster, associate priest at St. Matthias Anglican Church in Edmonton, has served as a part-time chaplain at local seniors’ residence the Canterbury Foundation.
The Journal spoke with Webster on Sept. 15 to discuss how the pandemic has changed seniors’ ministry. This interview has been edited for brevity.
What does your seniors’ ministry look like right now at Canterbury?
[Before the pandemic I led] Bible studies and worship services. We also had community clergy coming in from other denominations and two other Anglican churches, so there was quite a varied amount of spiritual care offered to residents.
When COVID started, of course, all of that stopped and my ministry became a lot more pastoral visiting. I started creating a weekly little leaflet that I printed and delivered to their rooms once a week. That [contained] things like articles of encouragement—spiritual encouragement, but also things dealing with loneliness or stress or some strategies to deal with isolation … trying to be uplifting, but also acknowledging the current situation.
That was the shape of ministry, really, and then just being in the building, also offering spiritual care and support to staff as well. We have many more meetings now, and so we’re able to begin those in prayer, and so I offer those for the staff. That’s been for several months.
Over the last month, we have gone to another stage. We still aren’t able to welcome our community clergy in, and so I have started offering services in their place as well. Whereas I would normally do, say, three services a month, now I’m doing about 12, 13.
At Canterbury Foundation we have three levels of care. We have an independent [level], more supportive [care], and then we have a memory care unit. Because of COVID, those three units have to be kept separate. There’s to be no crossover of residents. Of course staff have to go between them. So my services cannot be in the chapel for everybody. I go into the separate buildings to do the services.
Our independent facility is called Canterbury Manor. I go into their dining room and offer a weekly service. We don’t have singing and we don’t have communion, but we’re able to pray and hear Scripture and have a message. Then [Canterbury Court] is more assisted living, more supportive care, and so I go into their activity room and do the same thing in there, and then the same in the memory care unit. But the memory care unit is a large unit, so I went in there separately anyway before.
Everyone has to wear a mask [and] everything has to be cleaned before and after, all the tables and chairs. We’re taking every precaution.
How are seniors and staff that you’ve encountered doing?
At first when we were completely locked down, residents were not allowed to leave the building. People—I’m talking about the independent unit at the moment—although they understood, I think the hardest thing for them is to not be able to see their families.
But over the months, Alberta Health Services has put out different COVID calls that we follow, and so now residents are allowed to see their families. First of all it was outside visits, and so we facilitated that. Then they were allowed to have a designated visitor come into the building now.
But still, yes, some of them are quite philosophical about it, and some are really suffering with the isolation and the worry, and worrying about their families, about their children and their grandchildren.
In our court, which is more supportive living, where there are more incidents of different levels of dementia, some are really suffering because they don’t understand as much what is happening, and they don’t understand why their families aren’t coming to see them like they used to do. So you can see real emotional decline in some of the residents.
They are allowed to see their families now. But it’s not the same and they have to wear a mask and there’s no hugging. It’s still going to be a while before it’s back to normal, if it ever is. It’s taking a toll on people for sure.
The staff are amazing, talking about resilience and those kinds of things. But there’s a constant worry, I think. I’ve observed that the staff are extremely diligent in keeping the protocols. We haven’t had a case [of COVID-19] yet as of today, so that’s good.
I hope it stays that way.
Yeah, so do I. They do have residents on isolation, because if a resident has gone and been in the hospital for a certain amount of time, then when they come back, they have to be in 14-day isolation. I think we’ve had a couple [residents] that have been away with their families, and so when they come back, they have to do the 14-day isolation. So there’s more of that going on than we’re used to.
How should Anglicans pray for chaplains at seniors’ homes, for staff members and for residents?
I think just for God’s peace in the ministry to which we’re called, to be able to continue it, to be a positive presence from which people get strength.
Update on Oct. 20, 2020:
Has anything changed in the last month?
We now have had two [cases of COVID-19] in staff. However, it hasn’t manifested itself in an outbreak or anything. The two staff were isolated and there was no contagion, no passing it along.
Have restrictions on visitors, etc. become more stringent again since September?
No, they’ve stayed the same. They eased somewhat [before then] and family members can now come into the building, with an appointment and screening of course. They have to stay in their relative or friend’s room. But we haven’t gone to another stage of opening up.
We’re seeing the impact psychologically on the residents of the isolation, and so we’re feeling that it’s really important that they do have contact with their families.