By Larry Urish     8/2/2016

It’s a cliché for a reason: Life, at least as we know it on this earthly plane, doesn’t last forever. This often-used dictum becomes far more tangible as the birthdays start to add up, and it can become a troubling focal point when we get old. Face it: When we get up in years, we’re simply closer to the end of our lives.

How we live our last days can profoundly affect the way we view our place in the world, where we’ve been, what we’ve done, what we’ve contributed to and what may happen to our bodies when we pass on. And where we live, especially during our last years, significantly affects how we live.

This is particularly critical in skilled-nursing facilities (also known as nursing homes), which provide 24-hour long-term medical care, three meals a day, housekeeping and laundry service, and exercise and physical therapy programs, among other assistance. Some nursing homes do a wonderful job of caring for their seniors, while others are nothing short of deplorable.

It’s not by accident that the very best nursing homes are deeply rooted in faith and spirituality; virtually all are run by places of worship. Numerous studies, by both religious and secular organizations, have concluded without a doubt that faith-based nursing homes are cleaner and better run, and employ far more caring staffers.

The question is, why?

“A [faith-based] nursing home puts spiritual care way up on their priority list,” says Father Troy Schneider, parochial vicar of Holy Family Cathedral, in Orange. “That’s especially helpful with the elderly. They know that their bodies aren’t functioning as well, and a strong spiritual life helps them to endure their challenges.”

When a nursing home resident is surrounded by Christians – caregivers, medical staff and fellow residents – who believe in the same things, he or she can grow spiritually. A strong sense of spirituality and spiritual community has a significant positive effect on health, and to many it’s essential to live in a place where faith can be practiced openly. For example, when doctors, nurses and caregivers can pray with a nursing home resident, the healing outcome can be nothing short of astounding.

Faith-based nursing homes offer indoor chapels, pastoral care, bereavement support, church-related field trips and prayer groups – things unheard of in secular facilities.

Father Troy notes, however, that spirituality and religion needn’t be limited to church services or formal prayer. In fact, it may be far more common.

“What’s important is that spirituality and faith are intermingled with so many of the activities and support groups,” he says. “Faith and the Bible can be a part of a home’s sewing group, for example. The residents have the freedom to talk about spiritual things.”

Elders in nursing homes depend on their beliefs and memories to help them deal with the inevitable losses that happen with aging: the loss of health or cognition, the loss of loved ones and the loss of home and possessions, to name but a few.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s the loss of freedom that hits [seniors] harder than anything,” Father Troy says. “They can’t leave anytime they want; their lives are very structured.” Faith-based homes, he adds, seem to be more flexible in terms of meals and outside transportation. As a result, the residents don’t feel so locked in and institutionalized.

“It’s a big shock for anyone to move into a facility,” he says. “But now, so many of these places – especially the Christian facilities – try to limit that shock.”

Many nursing homes make no effort whatsoever to provide even a hint of spiritual or religious care. That’s their lowest priority. Sadly, whether they even know it or not, the elderly residents suffer.

“Just today, when visiting a [faith-based] facility, I asked several people, ‘What do you look at here that’s most important?’ Their answer was the same: the welcoming staff. The friendship. You get that in homes like these.”

It’s called “the Lord’s work” for a reason. Those who work in Christian nursing homes don’t view their time there as a job; rather, to them it’s a ministry. The staffers are really involved in the residents’ lives. The seniors notice – and really feel – this genuine caring.

“They’re not just doing a job,” Father Troy says. “It’s family.”

This kind of commitment invariably results in a cleaner, better-run facility.

Many of the residents in skilled-nursing facilities are lonely. Being alone and lonely, Father Troy says, is not acceptable to humanity. We’re not created to be alone.

“As Catholics, we’re rooted in community,” he says. “We always minister to those ‘on the fringes,’ as Pope Francis has said. And when a person goes through their last days on earth, there’s always a yearning to be a part of something … so they know that their life is more meaningful.”

Faith-based nursing homes provide this critical and often-ignored element – and a whole lot more.