Celebrating our Anna Chaplains: Nicky Smallwood

Celebrating our Anna Chaplains: Nicky Smallwood

In celebration of International Day of Older Persons this Thursday, we want to give a shout out to some of our Anna Chaplains who work hard to offer spiritual care to older people around the country. You can learn more about Anna Chaplains and their ministry at annachaplaincy.org.uk.

Nicky Smallwood will be ordained in October. A former vet, she has been a part time Anna Chaplain in the Winchester diocese for just over a year. We got in touch with her recently to talk about her experience as an Anna Chaplain during the coronavirus lockdown.

'I became an Anna Chaplain after I found myself on a plane, going out to Rwanda with the diocese; and I happened to be sitting next to a lovely priest within our group. She mentioned that a neighbouring parish to her was looking for a new Anna Chaplain, and I just thought ‘Oh that would be perfect!’ So when I got back from Rwanda, I made enquiries and I was lucky enough to be offered the role.

I work eight hours a week as an Anna Chaplain and before lockdown about half my time was split between the two care homes within the parish. The other half would be spent on home visits, home communion, meeting people at coffee mornings, and getting involved in a range of church activities for older people. The church where I work already had an established ministry for older people including three big events each year: a summer afternoon tea, an Advent lunch and, at the start of Lent, a pancake lunch. Many people are invited from the surrounding villages. These are absolutely lovely social events, either in the village hall or the church hall which I join in with, as well as the pastoral care team meetings: that’s roughly how my time would be split ‘normally’.

I also play the guitar and sing, so I used to take my guitar into the homes– I’ve played to a couple of groups in the homes and they loved it, getting together in the lounge and singing along. I sing some well-known hymns but it’s mostly old songs from the war which they really love hearing and joining in with.  But I also go round residents’ bedrooms for one-to-one playing and singing and that can be a very powerful way to make a connection with people, especially for those living with dementia, and those for whom communication is difficult.

It’s been really hard to lose that opportunity. I badly miss going in and seeing people, and feel so much for those who are even more isolated than usual.  For people struggling with failing eyesight or hearing loss, the isolation is compounded. Those who can no longer hear, for example, can’t benefit from phone calls as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family. There are people I’ve spent lots of time with, and got to know really well, and it’s so hard not to be able to go in and see them. It’s more than six months since they’ve been able to have any visitors other than in very limited meetings with one or two members of their immediate families, and I really feel for them.

I’ve got a wonderful team of six Anna Friends at church. We’d only just finished the training before lockdown so we never actually got as far as their commissioning  service which is a real shame, but we will be holding this service when we’re able to. But they’re all amazing and doing loads to help older and more vulnerable people, individually in their own neighbourhoods as well as through their Anna Friends work.

In one of the residential homes, I got in touch with the manager quite near the beginning of lockdown, to find out which of the residents might appreciate receiving letters. I divided the names between our  Anna Friends, giving each of them a list of 6-7 people to write to each week. And then every week I email my contacts in the homes; I send them a letter, a short bible passage, a reflection and a prayer and other bits and pieces. I often include something from Debbie Thrower’s amazing Anna Chaplaincy blog.

One of our wonderful Anna Friends has been transferring the parish church service onto  DVDs and posting them through the doors of the residential homes. The staff and residents have been thrilled to receive the DVDs and I know one of the homes plays the services on a Sunday morning in the lounge. The staff have found it easier to play a DVD, than accessing the resources online.

I’ve also sent in other resources for the staff, such as Bible verses and prayers for them to use as part of end-of-life care. On a few occasions I’ve sent letters to people who I used to visit out in the community, but mostly I’ve been phoning them, to keep in touch

What we’ve missed is being face to face with people, and that’s what’s so valuable about the Anna Chaplaincy role. I’ve been able to write letters and send emails and make phone calls and that’s all good – it’s great that so much is going on despite the restrictions – but it doesn’t replace the personal touch. Perhaps I will make more phone calls in future because you can contact more people in a shorter amount of time, but to go round to someone’s house and have a cup of tea with them is something very special; being with people in person and spending time together and praying together is really valuable, and obviously I can’t play my guitar and sing with the care home residents at the moment. I have got my sewing machine out and have started making cross-shaped lavender bags for people to use as holding crosses.

But beyond the implications for Anna Chaplaincy work, the lockdown has given us a good reminder that our faith is not tied to the church buildings, but manifests itself in relationship with God and in our relationships with other people. Nothing can stop us from praying, and even though we’ve not been able to meet in person, I know that some relationships have grown during these months – through phone calls, particularly.

Lockdown seems to have transformed society in a way – the friendliness of people and the number of volunteers, not just from church, but everywhere– so many thousands of people up and down the country volunteering to help meet the needs of vulnerable people. I find that amazing, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but I do think it’s wonderful.'

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