Sweet spirit


February 5, 2020

Chaplains and other caregivers keep the faith at south Charlotte retirement communities. 

By Ken Garfield | Photographs by Kelsie Droppa of Longley Photography

It might be leading Bible study, or helping a resident Skype into her home church’s Sunday morning service — or comforting a family in the moments after a loved one’s death.
For chaplains and other staff members who tend to the spiritual life of those who call senior-living communities home, no two days are alike. In the broader sense, every day offers the same sacred opportunity: extending God’s love to all God’s children, especially those whose journey is nearer the end than the beginning.

According to 2015-16 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.3 million residents live in 15,600 nursing homes in the United States. That figure does not include those living in residential-care and assisted-living facilities and other senior-living communities. Most of these communities focus more on the amenities than the spiritual offerings. Many senior-living establishments, after all, are owned and operated by for-profit corporations. But in Charlotte, where faith remains a powerful part of the ethos, caring for the aging often means caring for both body and soul.
     South Charlotte is graced by the presence of some of the city’s most-respected senior-living communities. SouthPark magazine profiles three such places and those responsible for keeping the faith. In its own way, each community harkens back to the words of that familiar hymn, “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”

Carol Anne Lawler

‘There’s a sense of community here’

When Rev. Carol Anne Lawler arrived at Southminster in June to succeed longtime chaplain Gary Hudson, her job title changed and her role expanded. Now the Minister of Spiritual Wellness, her focus is on ministering to the whole person.

Facilitating mindfulness and spiritual-practices groups, overseeing the Tuesday afternoon chapel service, and offering one-on-one comfort to residents and staff are still priorities. On the way to the interview for this story, a member of the Southminster Neighborhood Singers ensemble stopped Lawler to tell her a foot pedal on the organ was sticking. Lawler promised to take care of it.

Beyond all that lies another charge: infusing each person’s life with a sense of meaning and purpose.

That translates into a comparative religion series in which she led separate “field trips” to a synagogue and a mosque; quickly organizing a “Service of Hope and Remembrance” after a recent spate of mass shootings; hosting a “Grief at the Holidays” workshop to help those for whom the lights of the season don’t shine as brightly; or leading a class on Life’s Journeys According To Mister Rogers, a collection of quotes and anecdotes by the popular children’s TV host.

Lawler came to the job with powerful credentials. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, she was a pulpit pastor in Charlotte before finding her calling in other challenges. For 11 years, she served as a chaplain with Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region. Neither death nor the frailties of age intimidate her. Rather, she is drawn to the challenge of affirming the dignity of the elderly, and working to make sure society does, too.

Aging, she says, is not for the faint of heart. It can rob us of our mobility, memory, hearing and driving privileges. Loneliness can set in, especially when the sun goes down. We may have to learn to live without a loved one who meant the world to us. 

“In our culture,” Lawler says, “you tend to be diminished in the eyes of society as you age. Older people sense they are not as valued as they once were, and that can be a struggle for them.”

She reminds residents to heed the advice of the sages, “The man is wise who doesn’t wish to be younger.”She encouragesthem to tell their stories, and savor this part of life’s journey. “Maybe if we embrace older age, we can embrace all parts of our lives,” Lawler says. “One of my favorite quotes is from author Madeleine L’Engle. ‘The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.’”

“There’s a sense of community here, real community,” she says. “You appreciate the fact that people look out for one another. You appreciate that their children are at ease because their parents are being taken care of.

“This is really the best job I’ve ever had. The residents are so affirming and loving and kind and gracious. What’s not to like?”

Christ Episcopal and Myers Park Baptist churches came together to open Southminster in 1987 as an ecumenical, nonprofit retirement community. Located on Park Road across from South Mecklenburg High School, it is home to 325 residents and 400 staffers.

Teresa Wohlbruck
and Luci Heeseman

Taking care of each other

At The Cypress, they talk about the eight dimensions of wellness adding up to a full life: physical, emotional, social, environmental, vocational, intellectual and health services are seven.

The eighth is spiritual, and at this community built on an old golf course, that slice of life is entrusted to both residents and staffers. Community Life Services twosome Teresa Wohlbruck and Luci Heeseman help facilitate the many goings-on. But it’s the community that drives this train, or as Wohlbruck explains, “A lot of it is listening to our members and their needs.”

Among the many examples of that principle: Resident Bob Ivey, a retired minister of music, leads the “Round the Table Sing” each Christmas, a beloved Cypress tradition. Rev. Neal Jones, a resident and retired Baptist preacher, helped start “The Gathering,” a Tuesday evening service in the community hall. About 20 ladies gather each Thursday morning for a women’s Bible study. No one person is responsible for getting it going, says regular attendee Barbara Cash. Like so much at The Cypress, she says, “It just kind of fell into place.” A men’s Bible study meets weekly to study the wisdom of evangelist/author Charles Stanley. Cypress residents (and buddies) Blair Bryan, Jim Evans, Bill Shipley and Jones are to thank for that offering, though Shipley confesses, “The ladies’ group is bigger than ours.”

Local pastors often come to share communion, lunch, tea and always conversation with members of their congregations who live at The Cypress. With a growing Jewish population, Rabbi Judy Schindler came to share as the menorah was lit at Hanukkah. As at many retirement communities, come Sunday morning some of the larger churches send their vans to pick up folks for worship. Always, residents’ pastors are a powerful presence when needed, as are Hospice chaplains. In retirement communities as in all of life, spirituality begins with building relationships and making connections.

“This community is known for its loving, supportive environment,” Heeseman says. “They look out for each other. It’s a community of neighbors taking care of each other.”

The Cypress of Charlotte opened in 1999 at the site of the nine-hole Sharon public golf course at the corner of Park Road and Park South Drive. It has no religious affiliation. It is home to 475 residents and 400 staffers.

Caroline East

‘This is a sacred community’

Rev. Caroline East came home and found her calling as chaplain at Sharon Towers: Helping seniors navigate life’s journey, wherever the road leads. “It’s the opportunity to be there with people through all of life’s major experiences,” she says. “That’s what I do. This is a sacred community.”

East arrived at Sharon Towers in August 2018, previously serving as pastor of Pinetops Presbyterian Church in eastern North Carolina. Having grown up in Charlotte as a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church, she brought to the job a familiarity with the community (she attended Selwyn Elementary, Alexander Graham Middle School and Myers Park High). She also brought a passion to help her new flock appreciate their worth. She leads chapel and Bible study, offers guided meditation and teaches a class called “Faith, Spirituality and Aging.” She supports folks in their faith expression, no matter their faith. For those caring for a loved one with dementia, she leads an “Up for Air” support group.On the day we spoke, she was exploring ways to offer dementia-friendly programs, sharing an Advent wreath whose safety-first “candles” feature artificial light.

Some vital moments come unexpectedly. It could be an impromptu conversation about a matter weighing heavy on someone’s heart. Or filling someone’s final moments with peace.

East’s office is across the hall from Roger and Sherrill Suiter’s apartment. They began as neighbors, then became friends. As Parkinson’s disease took its toll on Roger, she’d visit him regularly. A gregarious sort, Roger loved the company. Near the end, East talked with him about his Christian faith. “He was OK because he knew his family was OK, and that he was loved,” she says. The morning Roger died at age 80, East shared a cup of coffee with Sherrill, to prepare her for what was to come.

“She was right here, right here at my door,” Suiter says. “She centered me. She’ll never know what she meant to us. Her presence was a blessing during the most difficult part of Roger’s and my life.”

At the heart of every task, East says, is reminding residents that they matter, even (especially!) at an older age. “Everybody needs to know how valuable they are. Everybody deserves love and respect and someone who’s there for them. That’s at the core of theology. I’m here to allow for them to flourish at this stage of life.”

At Sharon Towers and anywhere, East says, all you need is love and resilience.

“Throughout our lives, we have to learn to extend grace to one another. This is a great place to practice that.” 

Sharon Towers on Sharon Road opened in 1969, founded by leaders of Covenant Presbyterian and other Presbyterian churches. The ecumenical, nonprofit community is home to 350 residents and 300 staffers. SP

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