By Ann Lovell
RICHMOND, Virginia—Helen Wood wears a Fitbit. She doesn’t always reach 10,000 steps a day, she says, but she tries to go over 5,000. Wood, a resident of Lakewood in Richmond’s West End, recently attended her 60th college reunion at the University of Richmond. She is a member of Virginia Baptist Women in Ministry and also serves on numerous boards, including the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.
“The key to successful attitudes about aging is to find hobbies and interests beyond your work,” Wood says. “I have many outside interests, but all are within my faith sphere.”
Faith matters to Wood, and for many senior adults like her, the interplay of faith, community and wellness — LifeSpire’s core values — often yields positive results. In fact, a 2010 study on spirituality and aging concludes that faith and religious participation are as important as diet, exercise and social connectedness to successful aging, leading not only to longevity but also to higher satisfaction and a better quality of life.
Tom Crittenden, a resident of The Chesapeake in Newport News, agrees.
“My faith is nourished through my church activities and service on (The Chesapeake’s) worship and spiritual life committee,” Crittenden says. “We are one big family here. … By staying busy in church, overall, I have a better life.”
FAITH DOESN’T CHANGE
But faith is nothing new to Crittenden and Wood. Both say that faith has been an important part of their lives since they were children.
Crittenden grew up Methodist. His mother died a day after Crittenden was born, and his uncle and aunt, whom he describes as “good Christian folks,” adopted him.
“Church was a part of life,” Crittenden says. “My mother taught Sunday school, and I was baptized in the Methodist church.”
Likewise, Wood’s faith has been vital to her throughout her life. “I grew up in faith,” Wood says. “I had Christian parents and grandparents. As a pre-teen, I felt that there was something special I should be doing, and God opened doors for me.”
After college, seminary and marriage, Wood and her husband, Rudy who died in 2008, served 15 years in Europe as international missionaries through the then-Foreign Mission Board (FMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention (now IMB). Later Wood served on staff at the FMB mobilizing college students for a variety of international mission opportunities. She also worked with the Virginia Woman’s Missionary Union.
“My faith hasn’t changed over the years,” Wood explains. “It’s who I am. I try to live my life not out of obligation but out of gratitude.”
Julie Walton, who along with Louise Mason serves as chaplain at Lakewood, agrees that faith is life-long. “Faith is important to us for all of our lives,” Walton says. “Faith doesn’t change. It gives meaning and hope in difficult circumstances.”
“Faith takes over when there are no more answers,” says Gerald Carter, chaplain at The Glebe in Daleville. “It’s a belief that the triune God is active in our lives every day.”
“Faith equips us to deal with life’s difficulties such as loss, fear and illness,” says Nancy Hayes, chaplain at The Chesapeake. “Some of the things happening to (our residents) are a slippery slope. Walking through these issues together helps us support, comfort, and encourage one another.”
GOD’S LOVE LIVED OUT
From its beginnings, LifeSpire of Virginia (formerly Virginia Baptist Homes) has been an organization rooted in the Christian faith and centered in Jesus Christ. “Love God and love people,” Jesus told his disciples. “These are the greatest commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40, paraphrased). LifeSpire seeks to promote an organizational culture where God’s love is lived-out among residents, families and staff.
This faith-based distinction is a difference you can feel, says Mason. “The atmosphere here is genuine. People live it,” Mason says. “Nobody here needs to be reminded, and the staff embodies it as much as the residents.”
Carter agrees, “God lives in this place in a special way.”
For Hayes, the faith-based distinction also means welcoming those from a variety of different backgrounds. “We work hard to accept people who have different faith perspectives,” Hayes says. “We focus on what binds us together, rather than what separates us.”
Hayes, who encourages residents to stay active in their local churches, also offers an ecumenical worship service Sunday afternoons. Crittenden, for example, attends his Methodist church Sunday mornings, where he has served as a trustee and is active in the Methodist men’s group. Then, on Sunday afternoons, he helps set up the sound system for the 3 p.m. ecumenical service at The Chesapeake.
“Some of our residents can’t get out Sundays, so they meet with us at 3 p.m.,” Crittenden explains. “We usually have between 65 and 100 people for Sunday afternoon worship.”
WHEN MEMORY FAILS
While participation in faith-based activities helps provide active seniors with a sense of purpose and well-being, faith is also important to seniors suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Mason explains. She recalls an instance when she worked on a psychiatric ward early in her career.
“One of the patients had written his own gospel hymns,” Mason says. “He had difficulty communicating, but he sat down at a piano in a commons area and began to play and sing those old hymns. People came out of their rooms to listen. It was a holy moment.”
While dementia and Alzheimer’s disease rob a person of short-term memory, a deeply rooted faith can continue to thrive even as memories fade, Mason says.
“Memory care residents who may not know what day it is can recall a particular church experience from their childhood,” Mason says.
Walton agrees, “Faith taps into a really deep part of you. It transcends day-to-day living.”
Faith also removes anxiety about the future, says Wood, who believes in an afterlife.
“I couldn’t begin to list all the miracles in my life, but they are proof to me that God cares about us individually,” Wood says.
“Today is a gift, and there’s no promise for tomorrow,” she continues. “I’m in God’s hands, and I feel very confident about that.”
Ann Lovell is corporate director of communications at LifeSpire of Virginia, formerly Virginia Baptist Homes. She can be reached at (804) 521-9192 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.