A Song for the Lonely: Ministering to Shut-Ins

Man playing violin for a group of nursing home residents
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Nursing homes. Simply thinking about these places often elicits mixed emotions. Many of the men and women in these facilities receive adequate care and have friends or family nearby who visit them, but there are too many exceptions. You don’t have to look far to find stories of abuse, neglect or loneliness.

Especially loneliness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these facilities provide essential care for more than 1.4 million residents nationwide. As Christ-followers, it’s not hard to see how the familiar admonition of James 1:27 (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.”) would include the women and men in senior-care facilities.

But how can you and your family embrace this principle in a practical way – even if no one you know personally actually lives in a nursing home?

Consider the gift of music.

I was first introduced to this concept by my wife’s family. Every Wednesday night for many years, they would converge at the local nursing home in their small West Texas community and sing hymns with the residents. After I married in to the family, I had the chance to join them on a few of these excursions.

Words can’t adequately describe the joy on the residents’ faces during these weekly singalongs. It wasn’t just that outsiders were taking the time to see them – many of them probably didn’t have other visitors during the week – it was also the chance to hear and to sing songs with eternal themes.

The music took their focus, if only for a few minutes, off of wheelchairs and oxygen tanks and failing health. Whether it was “Peace in the Valley,” “Just Over in the Gloryland” or “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” there was healing, soothing power in those old songs.

My wife and I have since moved to Colorado, where we’ve joined with colleagues at work and friends from our own church to sing hymns at nursing homes here. One of my co-workers made arrangements to lead music at a local facility’s weekly Sunday worship service. A box of old hymnals would come out and the singing would commence. The reactions from the residents were always similar to those I witnessed in West Texas: smiles, gratitude and tears – from them and from us.

Music is an easy way for you and your entire family (and by all means, get the kids involved) to extend love and kindness to those in nursing facilities, as well as shut-ins living in their own homes. It’s also worth noting that music has a powerful therapeutic effect for those suffering from dementia and other challenges common in nursing homes.

Before you get started, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Know your audience. That West Texas nursing home was in Southern Baptist country, so singing old hymns there was a natural fit. But don’t assume that because you’re dealing with elderly folks, everyone is going to warm to old-timey gospel music! Depending on the diversity, demographics and policies of a particular facility, other songs might be more appropriate, such as “This Land is Your Land,” “America the Beautiful” or “You Are My Sunshine.” One way to broach spiritual subjects without ruffling too many feathers is to visit during the Christmas season. Most people expect to hear “Joy to the World” at some point during the holidays, regardless of their religious background. Whatever tunes you choose, it’s important to remember that your presence is more critical than which songs you sing.

Keep it simple. You might not be the most talented singer, but that’s OK. You’re not putting on a concert or a Broadway show here. Many facilities have a piano or keyboard available, assuming that someone in your group knows how to play. If not, perhaps you know someone with an acoustic guitar. If all else fails, just sing a cappella. If you don’t have access to any hymnals, you can probably find some lyrics and chords for many classic songs online. Once again, your presence is more important than the music.

Take time to love. When the singing is done, don’t just get up and leave. Stay awhile and visit with the residents. Hold their hands. Touch their shoulders. Listen. Make them feel valued. Your friendship is important.

Come back again. Don’t make your nursing home singalong a one-and-done event. Make a return visit! Seniors don’t need someone performing a token “good deed,” never to return. Many feel forgotten and abandoned, even by their own families. They need to know that someone cares on an ongoing basis. That someone could be you!

As well-known pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Music … will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.”

With a little creativity and ingenuity – and a willingness to step out of your musical comfort zone – you and your family can help keep that “fountain of joy” alive for those who are too often forgotten and overlooked by society.

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