Older adults with chronic illness often need a combination of medical treatment and social and spiritual supports. Together, they can make people healthier and happier, and less likely to suffer acute episodes that result in preventable hospitalizations. The medical treatment comes from doctors, hospitals, and health systems while the spiritual support comes from faith communities. And, in many cases, so does the social support.
But how can they work together? The worlds of medicine and faith speak different languages, often have different goals, and struggle to find common ground. Yet, I’ve found some interesting examples where, by working together, they can improve the well-being of seniors in their communities.
I recently wrote a short booklet for the Catholic Health Association that shows how faith communities and health systems can cooperate. You can download it for free here.
When they succeed, these models can benefit faith communities, health systems, and older adults and their families.
How can faith communities benefit? It is no secret that many mainstream churches and synagogues are struggling. Barely one-third of Americans say they attend weekly religious services and median attendance has dropped by nearly 40 percent over the past decade. Yet, 9 of 10 people believe that religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds. And congregations with an engaged and enthusiastic laity are more likely to grow than those whose members are less active.
In such an environment, houses of worship may be able to engage those who are disconnected from formal religion. Social supports may provide non-church-goers with a sense of community—a place that helps them cope with illness or the demands of family caregiving. And that community may eventually connect them with worship and spirituality.
Volunteer programs can also support clergy. For example, well-trained and well-organized lay volunteers may take on some pastoral care responsibilities.
What’s In It For Hospitals?
What’s in it for hospitals and health systems? Because hospitals now are penalized for readmissions and long stays, they need to help seniors maintain their health. It may mean sticking to a good diet or taking medications correctly, or helping cope with depression. Often, trained volunteers can help. The cost is low, but with new payment systems that reward health systems for keeping patients out of hospitals, the returns can be high. Faith-based programs can also be important marketing tools for hospitals.
But the biggest beneficiaries may be seniors and their families. In many underserved communities, churches are one of the few functioning institutions. They can be a trusted entry point to medical care for people who otherwise are disconnected from the health system. And they can help provide critical social supports that are so important for frail older adults.
Even where people have access to medical care, faith communities can are a less threatening environment than a hospital. For many, they are a familiar source of comfort.
Here are a few examples of hospitals and faith communities working together:
Volunteer Training: Mother Angeline Ministries of Care, operated by the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, teaches volunteers in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida, and New York City how to make pastoral visits and provide spiritual comfort to the dying.
In Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center trains faith-community lay health educators. Participants learn to identify potential medical conditions, help organize public health programming, and direct fellow congregants to community and medical resources.
In central North Carolina, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, four other hospitals, and 230 churches formed FaithHealthNC, which trains and coordinates volunteers who provide individual assistance to high-risk populations, including older adults.
Faith community nurses, sometimes called parish nurses, are registered nurses who serve as health educators, advocates, and counselors. In Hastings, NE, four part-time faith community nurses at St. Cecelia’s Catholic Church have made more than 2,000 parishioner contacts in less than three years, ranging from home visits to public health classes to grief groups.
Health Networks. In Memphis, TN, the Methodist LeBonheur health system has enrolled 580 faith communities and 20,000 individuals in its Congregational Health Network. Nurse navigators support CHN members while they are in the hospital and hospital-trained volunteer liaisons at each participating church arrange visits for congregants, help design discharges, and build a post-discharge support system. The program, budgeted at $600,000 annually, saves the health system $4 million a year.
In early 2016, the Maryland Faith Community Health Network replicated the CHN model in a two-year pilot with the LifeBridge Health system and 11 faith communities.
At a time when government support of medical care and social services is likely to decline, it will be especially important for key community institutions such as hospitals and faith communities to work together.