By Emilie D. Lisenko
A Parish Ministry to the Elderly
On May 10th, 1981 a group of concerned parishioners at Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles formed an organization dedicated to the enrichment of the lives of elderly and sick people. This organization took the names LOVES (Los Angeles Orthodox Visitors to the Elderly and Sick). Slowly but surely this dedicated group began to put its philosophy into practice. First of all funds had to be raised. LOVES accomplished this by hosting a Sunday luncheon in the Church hall and by soliciting donations from parishioners. Fortunately, people were very responsive, and LOVES was soon on its feet, financially speaking.
Starting small (LOVES had about 10 original members), and very loosely organized, LOVES began visiting the Orthodox elderly men and women in a nearby convalescent hospital. Most of these people were once active members of our parish, and were delighted to have visitors from the church. Even so, a problem soon became apparent. Most of the LOVES members spoke only English or English with a smattering of Russian, while most of the elderly spoke only Russian with a smattering of English. This problem has not yet been completely overcome. However, LOVES has recruited several Russian-speaking members, who help a great deal.
The visiting policy of LOVES has been determined by the language barrier, as well as by the initial fears of most LOVES members. Many people are eager to help, yet they are afraid of making the first visit to an elderly person, especially if that person is in a convalescent hospital or nursing home. Many of them feel insecure because of these fears as well as because of the language difficulty. For this reason, LOVES has adopted a policy of making visits in small teams. Generally, teams meet after the Liturgy on Sunday. Each team goes to visit a different convalescent hospital or adult residence. Within each group is at least one fluent Russian speaker. This alleviates the language problem, while at the same time providing companionship and a sense of camaraderie.
Most LOVES members find that, once they have made a few visits in teams, their initial fears begin to disappear. Many of them have begun to visit on their own, often during the week. Some of them have even “adopted” one or more of the elderly persons and go to see them regularly.
LOVES was criticized, especially in its early stages, because it did not do a lot of individual visitation. This is still a problem, though it has been somewhat alleviated by the team visitations mentioned above. It is difficult for many members to find the time necessary to make a more individual effort. Hopefully, as LOVES grows and acquires more members, the duties will be more widely distributed, and less burden will fall on any one individual member. We have a large number of elderly and sick parishioners (about 50) and LOVES is still a small group (15 active members).
There are those who prefer not to do any visiting. These people have often proved to be very handy at back-up work, such as preparing gifts and food items to be taken by those who do make visits. There are also those who do not have time to donate, but who have been very generous with their money. All of these people are encouraged by LOVES.
On holidays, especially at Pascha and Christmas, the whole group goes to visit, singing the troparion and kontakion of the feast, and providing the elderly with gifts. Usually these gifts are practical. At Christmas, both in 1981 and 1982, pajamas and toilet articles were given. At Christmas this year (1982) LOVES also gave a tape player and cassette tape of the Divine Liturgy (recorded here at our own parish) to each person who was judged capable of operating a cassette player. This gift has been very much appreciated, since many of the recipients are unable to come to church and, as a result, most of them feel a sense of isolation. This gift helps them to feel more a part of the parish family.
In connection with church services, LOVES has begun providing transportation for those who are ambulatory. In the autumn months of 1982, LOVES acquired a van and began driving our elderly parishioners to Sunday Liturgy. This is done on a rotating basis, so that several people in one area are picked up one Sunday, while the people from another area are brought on the following Sunday, and so on. This insures that all are able to attend Divine Liturgy at least once a month. Those who live closer to the Church often are able to attend almost every Sunday.
One more effort made this year by LOVES should be mentioned. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a dinner was provided for all the elderly who were well enough to come to the church in the van (several trips were made) or in the cars of several individual members. Several “outsiders” were invited as well. The meal was cooked by LOVES members and other volunteers. The festivities began with a short prayer service in the church. This was followed by dinner, with music performed by our local balalaika orchestra (mostly teens), and with folk-dancing provided by some of our parish school students. Everyone had a marvelous time, and our elderly guests are still writing notes and calling to thank us for providing the chance to get out and meet old and new friends of their age.
Patience and Perseverance
In conclusion, it should be stressed that an undertaking of this kind requires time, money, patience, and lots of support. It took almost a year for LOVES to get organized, during which tie there were complaints that LOVES was a useless organization, and was not doing the visiting it was supposed to be doing. Instead of becoming totally frustrated, our LOVES members persisted.
Our clergy and a loyal band of parishioners supported the group, and we forged ahead, however slowly it may have seemed to everyone. It is important that members of fledgling organization of this type not be discouraged by the slowness of this initial phase, or by the inevitable criticisms which come from both outside and within the group. Perseverance pays off in the long run. No one is complaining about LOVES this year!