Give Sanctuary to the Hopeless in the Hallways

    Sally Matheny

Hopeless despair 
Who loves to go to the rest homes, the assisted living centers, the nursing homes?  Whatever name you call them, they are probably not on your list of favorite places to visit. The stench of urine, feces, and death are not as difficult to endure as the weight of hopeless despair lingering in the hallways.

Some people consistently serve here. For others, it’s a constant internal struggle between our minds wanting to do what we’re comfortable with, and our hearts doing what we know Christ wants us to do.

My husband, son, and I recently visited a church member who lives in such a place. We always enjoy our visits with Beth. We want to minister to her but it’s not easy. As soon as we enter the building, the odors welcome us. That doesn’t bother us as much as “the walk.”

In order to reach Beth, we must walk two long hallways. Those who are able have parked themselves on the sidelines in hopes of viewing something new, something fresh. They watch those from the outside breeze through in their bright colors. Many of the residents’ bodies deny them a view of faces; allowing them only a view of shoes pattering by. Nonetheless, it is life in motion, and a better scene than what lies in their room. For others, who receive a cordial hello or a smile, their faces light up like those of children catching candy in a parade.

Hoping for something new, something fresh.
Then, there are those whose minds will not free them to show any expression. Or worse, they convey hopelessness. We speak to those we can, and steadily make our way to Beth’s room. She’s gone, but her roommate is there. Confined to the bed, she repeatedly moves the one thing she can—her arm, back . . . and forth, back . . . and forth, back . . . and forth. No sound comes from her lips. You only hear a tap as she reaches out to each side of the bed with her arm. Tap…tap…tap.

Eventually, we find Beth in the cafeteria. A few residents have gathered there for an afternoon worship service. The residents share with one another their pain—not the pain in their bodies, but in their hearts. Some wrought with burdens for their loved ones who do not follow Christ. Others express their loneliness or hurt feelings. They end with a discussion on love, forgiveness, and prayer.

The resident leading the service talked of days gone by when church groups used to come and sing the old gospel songs. He fondly remembers children giving him pictures they had drawn, and how Sunday School groups would bring treats for everyone. He misses the old songs and said a lot of today’s contemporary Christian music doesn’t even mention God or Jesus. He asked if anyone played the piano. No one volunteered.

My husband stood up and said he’d try to play something.  The residents joined in on I’ll Fly Away and Amazing Grace. Tears welled up and I could hardly sing, especially when I saw the face of one gentleman. He, too, was emotional. His closed his eyes tight and scrunched up his wrinkled face as if he were in severe pain. I watched him for a while. His gentle swaying gave me the impression he was intensely soaking in the music, and with all his might he was trying to hold it there. Savoring it down to the depths of his soul, clinging to it for as long as possible.

I took a deep breath trying to suffocate the lump that had risen in my throat. I take so much for granted. Gazing around the room, I presumed their wheelchairs imprisoned them.  Reflecting on that later, I realize it was their only thread of freedom to pull themselves out of their tiny rooms and to the temporary sanctuary.

A wheelchair provides a thread of freedom
And temporary it was, for as soon as the service was over, most of them merged into a single lane out into the hallway. We stayed back to visit with Beth.  Three or four other residents lingered in the room as well.

I saw a skinny, stubble-faced, man wheel up to the man who had been soaking in the music. They spoke to one another softly and the skinny man bore a toothless grin. What they did next made me break out into a smile. Each of the elderly gentlemen stretched an arm out and gave the other a fist bump. They laughed and then began talking.

There was another man who stayed. We couldn’t determine if he wasn’t in his right mind or if he was just a rascal. He wheeled up behind our son and held a tiny paper cup in the air. “Can I get another shot of this? Or some other kind of liquor?” We laughed it off but Beth told him, “Quit cutting up just because I have visitors. You know all you had was juice. Tell these folks what your name is and then go on.”

The man announced his first, middle, and last name with a rolling, loud flair as if he was announcing a boxer into the arena.  Beth said, “He always says it like that. Alright, now, you go on and leave us alone.”

With a mischievous grin he did not move. He proceeded to ask her a question about the man in the corner, the one who had enjoyed the music. Unfortunately, he used a racial slur. The man in the corner overheard it and asked him what he said. Beth got mad. She pursed her lips, raised her eyebrows, and told him in a firm voice to leave before she told on him.

He didn’t move. She said, “Don’t make me come over there.” He still didn’t move.

A rest home brawl?
Nervously, I looked at my husband and wondered if we were going to witness a rest home brawl. Beth, with her enormous gold purse on her lap, which held all her “valuables, because things tend to go missing in this place if left unattended,” began to wheel herself behind me, around the table, then behind the instigator. Her agitation fueled her adrenaline and amazingly, she pushed his chair towards the door.

He yells, “Get out of my rim!”  He starts to push his chair back in our direction. It looked like a game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” He wheels behind me and circles back to his original position. Beth is livid.

Suddenly, the man asks if we have any medicine. Beth tells him it’s in his room and to go get it. He slowly moves on. Before exiting the room though, he stops by the two men in the corner. Slamming his paper cup down on the table, he roars at them, “Don’t ever come back unless you have free samples!” 

As entertaining as that sounds, I don’t imagine living with it every day is very pleasant. Dealing with bullies, worrying  about someone taking what little belongings you have left, or wondering when you’ll no longer have that single thread of freedom. It’s easy to see why so many feel desolate.

Give them a sanctuary.
I am grateful for those who are at ease serving people in this season of life. To go work day in and day out in this atmosphere takes someone special.

For the rest of us who struggle with it, I pray God reminds us of His will to treat the elderly the way we want others to treat us when we reach that age.  And that we remember that He wants no one to perish, but for all to have eternal life.

Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone, but the opportunities for accepting Christ are definitely dwindling for those in assisted living centers. Pray for them. In the midst of their despair, point them to an eternal hope. Give them something new, something fresh. Give them a sanctuary of hope.


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