Godly Play Goes to the Nursing Home

By Anne Pirie

It started with a conversation.

My friend, Elsie MacDonald, shared her hope of maintaining meaningful connections with seniors who could no longer attend worship. I talked of offering Godly Play for adults.  What could be done? We read about Lois Howard’s ministry with elderly persons in a nursing home. A phrase leapt out: “to be a loving, accepting presence to often forgotten people”*.  Elsie described aspects of her pastoral visits with seniors: remembering their names, physical touch, speaking tenderly, listening, hugs, giving attention.

Godly Play at the Drew Nursing Home
Godly Play at the Drew Nursing Home

Hmmm…a loving presence: that is what we wanted to be. Godly Play offered a way.

Getting ready:     I wonder how a nursing home is like a parable.

We had lots of questions and hopes. Could Godly Play with the elderly work here? Would the Nursing Home consider it? Did we understand enough about dementia and aging?  We met with Jay and Amanda, Activity Directors at the Nursing Home.  They noted that many residents preferred quiet over entertainment activities.  Jay and Amanda were curious about Godly Play. I opened the parable box and told the story of the Parable of the Good Shepherd. There was quiet, then reflections – oh, they liked the sound of the Storyteller’s voice – so calming; the story was familiar, the materials figures were appealing. The Activity Directors were open to the idea of Godly Play in the nursing home.

We felt it was best to meet with a small group. Often residents had verbal and physical challenges, some tired easily, and had hearing problems…how would we handle all that? This was full of mystery.

Our Story: It has been four months since we began offering Godly Play at the nursing home. We meet with 5-6 persons in a small living room. We take all the time needed in gathering. As residents arrive with their walkers or in wheelchairs, we greet them, visiting and connecting with each person. We welcome people in the group by name. The session unfolds in a rhythm of prayer, singing, Bible story using figures and reflection/wondering time. Singing familiar hymns is woven into our time together.
We are learning and adapting: Candles with batteries. Simple, 3-dimensional story materials set on the coffee table. Music learned early in life is key – no one needs sheets. Most know the 23rd Psalm by heart and join in unison. Sometimes participants sing along or tap their hands on a chair to a well-loved tune. ‘Jesus Loves Me’ is a favourite.  Often, there is silence.  People readily join in the Lord’s Prayer. Our roles as Doorperson and Storyteller are more fluid than in a Godly Play classroom with children.

Reflection: There is a lot to learn about communicating when words are gone or unclear. Our own hearts have been touched in ways beyond words.  When one of the group members died, we felt sad and remembered his smile and his efforts to speak. He often repeated the last line of what had been said. An echo that punctuated our words and phrases.

I wonder who is being the loving presence?  Reminds me of another parable.

* From Discovery to Recovery: Godly Play for Alzheimer’s Patients: Rev Lois Howard [AP1]  In Key Resources, Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary [AP1]

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