Alexian Brother's approach is aimed at helping seniors find peace of mind
By JULIE MINDA
ST. LOUIS — It's a busy Wednesday morning at the Alexian Brothers PACE Program here, as more than a hundred older adults arrive for their day at the center and make their way to their usual seats at dozens of large, round tables scattered around a ballroom-sized gathering area.
Br. Warren Longo, CFA, bustles around the tables, accepting hug after hug from new arrivals, assisting some with their wheelchairs or walkers, sending a wave and a smile to others who have already settled in. Clearly, the affection is mutual. He brightens as he works the room.
He knows each PACE participant personally, and asks about sick loved ones, or a recent visit with grandchildren.
"I am energized by this place," he says, adding of the PACE participants, "They give me love. They make my day. They are my family."
Br. Longo has been spiritual care director of the Alexian Brothers Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly since Alexian opened the program for low-income, frail seniors more than a decade ago in St. Louis. It's important to him that PACE participants know they are valued and that their lives have meaning and purpose. He says it is his mission as an Alexian Brother to honor each person's dignity and to show compassion. One way he does this is by helping participants explore and confront unresolved issues that produce spiritual discomfort.
"In a way, you become their pastor," he says of the PACE participants.
A spiritual atmosphere
This pastoral relationship is important when it comes to delivering spiritual care to participants of Alexian's program in St. Louis, which is one of about 75 PACE offerings in 29 states. The programs are designed to surround elders with the services they need so that they can postpone the necessity of nursing home care.
Gelene Adkins is a psychologist with the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, which is under contract with Alexian Brothers to provide psychological services to its PACE clients. She says many PACE participants grew up in a generation that avoided talking about unpleasant topics, and so these elders may have some spiritual concerns that they have never dealt with. Also, she says, since "they have quite an accumulation of experiences" over their many years of life, they may have experienced a lot of change, and perhaps tragic losses.
Unresolved conflicts and loss can make people feel emotionally shut down or restless; and, in extreme cases, can cause them to question life's purpose and God's love.
With patience and empathy, Br. Longo encourages PACE participants to face their fears and take actions that can ease regret and help them make peace with their lives.
Hurts in need of healing
Johnny Felts, a PACE participant since 2008, was struggling with a sense of loss when he sought help from Br. Longo. Felts lost contact with his infant son decades ago after he and the boy's mother divorced. He says he made several unsuccessful attempts at contacting his son. Eventually, "I didn't have the heart or the courage to try again," Felts says.
At PACE, he told Br. Longo he regretted never having known his son as a boy or as a man. Br. Longo spent nine months combing records to find clues to the whereabouts of Felts' son, and he sent letters to promising addresses, conveying Felts' love for the boy and his heartbreak over the lost relationship. Br. Longo offered to serve as a liaison to reunite the younger man and his father. All but two letter recipients replied that they were not the man that Felts was seeking. Felts believes one of the two nonrespondents may have been his son, but the man may not have been ready for contact. "But I feel wonderful for doing it. I feel blessed," Felts says. He adds that he has put the situation in God's hands and feels there has been a resolution.
PACE client Eleanore Powers relies on Br. Longo for spiritual support — she says she has few other people to turn to. She has a son in prison, and Br. Longo has befriended him, writing letters and encouraging her son to draw upon his spiritual resources for strength. The young man now calls Br. Longo "Pops," and he sent Br. Longo a Father's Day card and a sketch of his mother with Br. Longo.
Powers says Br. Longo's care and kindness mean a lot to her and her son. "My son has said to me, 'All I have is you and Br. Warren.'"
Ida May Rodgers is a PACE participant who admires Br. Longo's approach to helping PACE participants. "He's a loving person, who shows us God's love. He's a good listener, and I know he's praying for everyone here," she says.
Br. Longo, the recipient of a 2011 award from the National PACE Association for Best Practices in Spiritual Care at PACE Centers, insists he is only a small part of the picture when it comes to the spiritual transformations happening at PACE. He says the program's staff and residents are the ones who make the program so special. "Over time, we develop relationships here, and we build bonds over time and begin to open up. That trust is what's important," he says.
Integrated spiritual services
The extent to which the Alexian Brothers Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly has integrated spiritual services into its format is somewhat rare, according to a PACE expert.
Robert Greenwood, vice president of public affairs for the National PACE Association, says PACE programs are not required by law to provide spiritual care services. But, he says, since many PACE programs are affiliated with faith-based organizations, it is common for them to provide some level of spiritual services to participants. It is not so common, though, he says, for a PACE program to offer such a high level of spiritual services and to integrate the services into the program to the degree that Alexian has in St. Louis.
Br. Warren Longo, CFA, is a full-time staff member who serves as spiritual care director for the program. He works hand-in-hand with a multidisciplinary PACE team that includes a Baptist minister, activities directors, social workers, a psychologist, doctors, nurses and home care workers. He presides over a daily church service, open to PACE participants as well as to PACE's 90-something staff members. He notes that Catholicism is not forced upon anyone, nor is it even overemphasized. Each person's religious preference — or preference not to observe a religion — is respected, he adds.
PACE St. Louis' multidisciplinary team assesses elders' spiritual needs at admission and then twice annually as part of a broader assessment of their needs. Any PACE staff member also may recognize a spiritual need during regular conversations with program participants and refer them to Br. Longo.
He offers individual and family counseling services to participants and staff. And he makes regular pastoral visits to both current and past PACE participants when they are hospitalized or when they move on to long-term care.
Br. Longo says, "Spiritual care is not an addendum here — it is integral to what we do. And, participants appreciate that. They say on their assessments that they like the spiritual atmosphere here."
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