While lack of two parent family has often been pointed out in relation to incarceration in prisons, not much has been looked into for people who find themselves in the institution called the nursing home. Of course not everyone in nursing care is there because they are abandoned by their family but lack of close family is a growing reason why people have no where else to go.
Today’s situation in skilled nursing care is rapidly changing. As my own baby boom generation begins to fill the institutions what is coming next? When I was growing up there was no one else but me in my neighborhood who had divorced and remarried parents. But everything has changed so much that today, less than half of today’s children grow up in two parent families. Thinking ahead to the other end of life we may find that the abandonment, loneliness and isolation people face as children may turn into the stark reality of institutional care later in life. More people will be forced into nursing homes simply because families are missing in action.
I have served as a volunteer chaplain in a nursing home for over 20 years. The stories I have heard are these: “If I just had someone to help me go shopping and to the doctor I could go home.” another said. “My daughter is angry with me and so we never talk anymore!” While at the facility where I serve there is one woman who has come to visit her mother every day for the last seven years, more than half the other people never receive a visit from anyone.
But rather than discouragement, I have tremendous hope for the future. In the Bible we see the story of Joseph who was rejected by his brothers, sold into slavery and forgotten. Joseph reminds me a lot of some people placed in nursing homes. But just as God turned the tables on anger, bitterness and rejection in Joseph’s life, He can continue to do the same today. Joseph himself put the whole situation in perspective in a single sentence:
But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive Genesis 50:20
God meant the situation of Joseph’s betrayal for good, and he used Joseph to make it a reality and to bring healing to his family. The same things that worked for Joseph can work for us today.
Though Joseph couldn’t change his outward situation he could choose to do his best wherever he was. When he was a slave, he learned to listen to his master. Later when Joseph was in prison he learned to listen to the warden. Finally, when Joseph was released from prson he learned to listen to Pharoh. Maybe that is why when his brothers returned and they were terrified that he would kill them, Joseph listened and chose to act in a forgiving and restoring way. In terms of our being volunteers in the nursing home, the greatest gift we may give someone today is to listen to what they have to say.
In his poem “The Death of the Hired Man” Robert Frost wrote,:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”
Home is where people listen to us. They hear our complaints as well as our happy times. They know the tone of our voice and they understand often without a word just what is going on in our hearts. For our nursing home residents why not allow them to make us members of their family by learning to listen to what they have to say? We may not be able to undo the brokeness of missing in action families, but we can be an agent of healing. When we open our ears to listen, God can use us as He used Joseph to begin a process of restoration.