October 23, 2004
Houses of worship have been called hospitals where people go to be treated for the blows, scrapes and brokenness of life.
The physical health and welfare of congregations has become a core pursuit, especially with aging members and long lists of people with acute medical problems.
This element of a faith community’s business keeps visitation pastors traveling to hospitals, nursing homes and the homes of shut-ins.
Enter the "parish nurse," a registered nurse hired by the faith community to be a health advocate and adviser to members, to promote health and to help keep a congregation’s caregiving ministry on track.
In the past 10 years, 80 congregations in the metropolitan area have started health ministries and hired nurses, the vast majority on a parttime basis. In the coming weeks, the Nurse and Health Ministries Network, through Beatitudes Center Developing Older Adult Resources (DOAR), is offering free sessions for congregation representatives to learn how to set up and maintain parish nursing programs.
The ideal for parish nursing, said Charlie Peterson, director of health and wellness at Mountain View Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills, is "that if your congregation is well, you can go and take care of others. If you are spending all your time taking care of yourself because your congregation is ill, it limits your ability for outreach."
In her 6 1/2 years as parish nurse for United Church of Sun Lakes, Ann O’Connor has made the "heart and soul of my work" advocating for seniors trying to navigate the health labyrinth: Medication, treatment options, finding health care and understanding basic health.
"Unless they have a medical background, people don’t understand what the therapeutic plan set out by their doctor is," she said. "Instead of just going blindly day to day, taking medications . . . or doing the exercises the doctor prescribes, most people don’t understand the big picture."
In the 325-member church, O’Connor officially works a 20-hour week, but she, like other parish nurses, said actual hours far exceed that because of members’ needs and the realization that ministry cannot be strictly clocked. Most of her time is spent with parishioners, explaining what doctors want them to do and why compliance is important. She also primes people about what they need to ask their doctors and what to insist on.
"I know these people’s living situations," she said. "I know who is independent in their own homes. I know who has a tiny bit of assistance" and which members are most vulnerable. Sometimes, her task is working with an older couple, where one partner may be especially fragile, so that they can negotiate trips outside their home.
"The woman, who is usually the caregiver at home, is not strong enough to lift wheelchairs in and out of the trunk of their car to run out for a haircut on Friday morning and then, on Friday afternoon, have a doctor’s appointment," she said.
O’Connor works with them to find transportation and streamline the experience. She checks blood pressure, goes with some clients on medical appointments and writes health-related items for church newsletters.
"I attend pastorally to the health and well-being of the congregation in concert with the pastor," O’Connor said. "I encourage the expression of faith beliefs . . . (and) promote stewardship of the body and self-care of the whole person."
The parish nursing model was developed in the mid-1980s in Tucson by the Rev. Granger Westburg, a 45-year pastor, chaplain and educator. He refined his model of uniting medical and religious professionals in promoting health of body, mind and spirit. He saw the nurse as the ideal force to accomplish that. He took the idea to congregations in the Midwest, where it flourished. It has been formalized through a number of organizations, including Deaconess Parish Nurse Ministries, which operates the St. Louis-based International Parish Nurse Resource Center.
In 1994, the Nurse and Health Ministries Network was established in Phoenix. Last year, congregations with parish programs provided more than 150,000 health services. According to surveys, congregations, on average, serve 37 people weekly, with 92 percent of people seen being 65 or older.
Mountain View Lutheran’s program, begun 20 years ago, was the Valley’s first parish nursing effort and is still the model, said Sandy Somers, the network director. Twelve other programs were launched in 1994 through a major grant that initially paid nurses’ salaries. Many churches start out with "health cabinets," staff and volunteers who steer healthminded programming in congregations, from exercise programs to blood drives to addiction support groups to transportation help to the ill and aged.
"It’s a wonderful, wonderful calling," said Peterson, who has been a Mountain View member for 14 years, the last 1 1/2 as director of health and wellness.
"We are not home health nurses," she said. "I don’t do a lot of nursing," noting that she spends much of her time providing referral help or lining up grief support groups, health screenings or inoculation clinics.
A well-structured program, Somers said, blends caring and compassion with each person’s health and wellbeing in six key areas: Health educator; personal health counselor and advocate; referral source and liaison with community agencies; coordinator of volunteers; facilitator of health support groups; and interpreter of the relationship between health and faith.
Some parish nurses conduct programs with young families and in Sunday school classes, Somers said.
"Parish nurses might do some work in the Sunday school classes, as far as health behavior with children," she said. Dentists have similarly gone into classrooms to promote good self-care, and parish nurses coordinate CPR classes, safety fairs, health insurance interpretation and drug coverage help.
Among Beatitudes Center DOAR’s other programs is the Volunteers Interfaith Caregivers Program, which provides 1,200 volunteers from more than 100 churches and synagogues to visit older and disabled adults in their home or provide transportation, go shopping, and do small household repairs and other tasks.
"People are in denial," O’Connor said. "These are people who just don’t think ‘bad things can happen to me,’ or (they think) ‘that won’t happen to me,’ and people make bad decisions." A good parish nurse, she said, helps congregators sort through choices they have and then make more informed decisions.
A woman in her 80s, for example, was pondering having major surgery. O’Connor told her it would mean the woman ending up in a nursing home for extended recovery and away from her husband, who was in his 90s, "who couldn’t physically take care of you." O’Connor set the woman up to get a second medical opinion and a new set of options.
The Nurse and Health Ministries Network has scheduled four free sessions to explain how congregations can develop and manage parish nursing programs. They are 10 to 11:30 a.m.:
• Monday at Wesley Community Center, 1300 S. 10th St., Phoenix.
• Nov. 3 at St. Anthony on the Desert Episcopal Church, 12990 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale.
• Nov. 4 at Bellevue Heights Baptist Church, 9440 W. Hutton Drive, Sun City.
• Nov. 12 at King of Glory Lutheran Church, 2085 E. Southern Ave., Tempe. Reservations: Call (602) 274-5022 or e-mail email@example.com