Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Julia Allen Berger
Aberdeen Heights Senior Living

Two years ago, I departed hospital chaplaincy after 30+ years to work at a senior residential community in Kirkwood.  I can only speak anecdotally now about what front-line hospital chaplains have experienced during the past year.  A colleague named Rachelle recently posted on a site for chaplains: “Yesterday, I was told that I was the worst human in the world and that I, of all people, should understand!  [This was] when I had to explain to a family of 8 that they could not be in the ICU as their mother/grandmother/godmother died.  Not my favorite day.”

Hospital chaplains are called to be gatekeepers, stand-ins for the family at bedsides, and supporters of exhausted staff.   The irony of this pandemic is that the role of chaplain has never received more appreciative press on the national front.  It helps but does not erase the year’s fatigue.
Staff and family alike, of those living in senior communities and long-term care facilities, have seen accelerated cognitive decline among residents this year.  Isolation – some of which is mandated and some self-imposed out of fear –  has yielded increased anxiety, confusion, sadness, and spiritual distress.  This is where I spend my working hours and it is not an easy place to be, some days.
After the first few months in this setting, I realized that to spend time in a senior community is to truly face one’s mortality! Several of you within this presbytery have served as Aberdeen’s chaplain since its opening in 2011.  Older adults make up the majority in many of our congregations.  Just as new hospital employees sometimes feel the whole world is ill, because that’s the microcosm they see, working with a senior population can feel initially as if the whole world is facing diminishing ability.
As a palliative care specialist, I came into this role having accompanied many people facing death. What I knew less well – close up – was the incremental way the world of frail older adults begins to shrink.  During COVID, this process has sped up.  Without in-person family contacts for months on end, without the delight of little children visiting, some elders’ coping skills have become exhausted.  A steady diet of TV and meals in to-go containers only give a body so much to look forward to.  While many independent living residents ZOOM,  others sadly cannot manage the technology.  We offered holiday opportunities to connect virtually with family on a large conference room screen – a big hit.
Now the vaccine’s availability has re-kindled hope for residents and worn-out staff. Worship, broadcast by their own congregations or via closed-circuit TV at Aberdeen, has been a welcome source of encouragement.  So have chaplain newsletters to residents and snacks/self-care bookmarks for staff who are stretched.
Here are excerpts from a prayer Jim Cook, Board Chair of Presbyterian Manors of Mid-America, recently shared with their leadership.  It is meaningful to me in this setting and he has shared it with us:
It’s a pandemic, God. Reaching around the world. Affecting virtually everyone – directly or indirectly.
Part of the group that has been hit the hardest are the people in our care…
Our vulnerable residents and our caregivers and support staff are at risk and getting sick – and, too often dying.
Our first line staff is overworked. They are only human, and yet giving super-human effort.  And when that effort sometimes proves inadequate – they are devastated.
Give them the strength they need and the skills they need.
Our leadership teams are overworked. They are only human, and yet giving super-human effort. Give them the insight, the wisdom, the compassion they need to lead effectively.
Watch over our residents. Watch over our staff. Keep them all as safe as possible.
And help us realize [as a board] that the work we do is also important. Our hands may not be touching those who need a gentle touch. Our voices may not be heard by those who need an encouraging word. But our work helps to make it possible for others to do that vital work.
Guide our work;  guide our conversation. May our decisions be good in your sight.
Rev. Dr. Julia Allen Berger
Aberdeen Heights Senior Living


  • Posted February 9, 2021 4:52 pm
    Sim Gardner

    Thanks for this and your ongoing faithful service, Sim

  • Posted February 9, 2021 5:31 pm
    Mary Diboll

    I am the care giver for my husband who is approaching his 98th birthday, and your words resonate with me. I see, experience, and grieve the loss every day at our senior living facility. What I know beyond a doubt is that your ministry to the residents is a blessing, just as was your caring ministry to cancer patients at Barnes. Thank you.

    • Posted February 13, 2021 9:40 am
      Julie Allen Berger

      All our love to Wally

  • Posted February 9, 2021 5:49 pm
    Barbara Willock

    Julie ~ Thank you. You and your fellow chaplains do what I cannot do and I am so grateful to God and to you that you are providing such needed care. You and the other chaplains are in my prayers.

  • Posted February 10, 2021 8:37 am
    Emily Wigger

    Julie, thank you for your ministry. I am forever grateful for the hope you gave me when facing a future of uncertainty. Thank you.

  • Posted February 10, 2021 9:00 am
    Pat Baker

    Julie – Thank you for this beautiful “letter” of love. What I would like to share is that my mom who recently died at the age of 97did decline in the last 6 months of her life due to the restrictions within the nursing home due to Covid. But what I discovered was that it was those moments when the aide facetimed me with her on their I-Pad and my mom saw “me” but she laughed and joked with her aide and the two of them had these simple but great moments together of just pure relaxing and fun….that so gave her life. And for this I am the most grateful!!! What a gift to me….this aide was! Thank you for this beautiful celebration of what one person can bring to another….life!

  • Posted February 10, 2021 2:04 pm
    Shana Vernon

    Julie, I appreciate and am grateful for the difficult places in which you stand with others — at BJH, and at Aberdeen, and in the wider world. Your insight about palliative care experience in the hospital being different than witnessing incremental debility on a daily basis struck home with me. You’ve no doubt provided a “with-ness” to many, and felt deeply for those who are hurting. To your wellness and resilience!

  • Posted February 12, 2021 8:21 am
    Julie Allen Berger

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses, colleagues and friends. We will get through this. I am convinced more than ever how we need to support each other through these times.

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