Celebrating our Anna Chaplains: Hazel Ramsay

Celebrating our Anna Chaplains: Hazel Ramsay

Hazel Ramsay is the next Anna Chaplain we'd like to celebrate on International Day of Older Persons 2020. Hazel moved from Aberdeen to Wiveliscombe in rural Somerset after her husband died eight years ago, after a long illness: this is her story.

'I’ve volunteered with various charities over the years, including the Samaritans and mental health charities. Volunteer work fitted in well with other responsibilities: I could do it in the good times and let it go when necessary. I also write and paint, but I like to focus on one thing at t time, and recently that one thing has been Anna Chaplaincy.

It was at St Andrew’s in Wiveliscombe that I met someone who became very significant in my life – someone from whom I learned a very great deal spiritually, and also about dementia. Coincidentally, her name was Anna. Anna was living with dementia. She lived with her daughter who was a teacher at the local school and spent her days wandering restlessly around the town. Sometimes Anna would wander into the church and that was how I met her. I’m the kind of person who, in a crowd, will always look for the quiet person on the sidelines, or the person who seems to be overlooked or ignored. That’s what I did with Anna – over three years I befriended Anna, helping her to follow the services and spending time with her during the week.

I learned so much from her patience, her sweetness – she had a very lovely personality. She was a believer and I learned more about the Lord from her than I have from anyone else in my life. She had lived in Spain for years where her father was an architect and she’d gone on to marry a professional artist. She was an artist herself; she loved poetry, beauty… and those were things we bonded over. We often walked for miles together, not so much talking, just enjoying each other’s company and listening and looking at the world around us. We’d often sit in the empty church together in silence, just holding hands and her face would shine with love.

I had a brother who had lived with mental illness, and my first husband was seriously mentally ill, so I knew a little about it, but not so much about dementia. But Anna prompted me to start reading up and finding out all I could about dementia. I didn’t know anything about Anna Chaplaincy back then – that only came later, about three years ago, just before Anna died.

When I first came across Anna Chaplaincy I mentioned it to the incumbent but he was on the point of retiring so it was only when our new Rector, Martin Walker, arrived, that things began to happen. He said ‘Anna Chaplaincy? Oh yes please!’ I said to him, ‘I know at 81 I’m a bit old for this sort of thing and you can find anyone else to do it, please do, especially if they have a car!’ But there really wasn’t anyone else.

There was a very clear need in the benefice, with so many older people and a number of them with dementia. But we didn’t talk about that – there was a bit of stigma. So slowly, slowly we had to learn to talk, and very gently break down that stigma. And Anna was instrumental in helping us to do that. We sat in the front row in church. She loved communion – it meant a great deal to her and she concentrated very hard, and then sometimes she would want to go up twice and would look at me in disbelief when I whispered, ‘We’ve already been up.’ ‘Have we?!’ she said.

We do have a residential home in the town and the Rector and I have been involved there, building up a genuine rapport with the new manager there and supporting residents, but of course they were closed to all visitors from March. Later in the summer they opened to individual members of residents’ immediate families, meeting in a marquee in the grounds but of course we still couldn’t visit. So apart from ‘window visiting’ we haven’t been able to do very much except keep in touch by sending in messages.

Lockdown has been OK for me personally because I’m very used to it after long periods of caring for my husband for so many years. But I’m also an introvert by temperament. I do enjoy people, but I also enjoy solitude so it’s suited me very well. Also, although I’m 81, I have no underlying health concerns so I have been able to get out. I think it’s been very hard for people who because of ill health have had to be in very strict isolation – they’re the people I feel most sympathy for. Those living alone and who have been totally isolated, and they’re often the people with no computer, not even a mobile phone perhaps. So we’ve had to rely on landlines, and sending letters and cards, poking little notes under the door, or leaving a little gift, a bar of chocolate or a magazine. So we’ve done that sort of thing, but it never feels enough and that’s a real frustration of lockdown. You just want to be able to open the door and give them a hug.

On the positive side though, it’s given everyone a chance to review their lifestyles and re-evaluate their priorities. For me, spiritually, instead of feeling a pressure or guilt – I should be doing this or that –and getting caught up in busyness, that extra time was a wonderful opportunity. For years now I’ve practiced meditation and contemplative prayer, and I lead the Julian meeting in church, so this was a chance to read more and meditate more and fully immerse myself in that. I’ve also decided to start painting again this winter. So for all the negative things people have experienced, and may do so again as restrictions are reinstated, for many, especially the over-committed, it’s been a useful, positive time overall.'

Find out about Anna Chaplains and their work at annachaplaincy.org.uk.

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