A conversation with the woman who serves as the heart and soul of spiritual life at Alma Via of San Rafael.
She prays with residents. She laughs and cries with them. For seven years, Rev. Donene Blair has served as the Spiritual Care Director at AlmaVia of San Rafael. As a minister ordained by the United Church of Christ, she leads worship services and provides spiritual guidance for residents and staff, no matter their beliefs.
Here, she talks about her work with residents as part of Elder Care Alliance’s holistic approach to wellness.
Q: What does your role as chaplain entail?
A: I am the heart and soul of the spiritual life of the residents. I do a lot of listening and counseling, both one-on-one with residents and family members. I also lead memorial services when we have residents who have passed away, and help the community say goodbye to someone who’s been part of our community.
Q: What are some of the challenges of counseling seniors?
A: As seniors get older and frailer, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible for them to get to church. When they move into AlmaVia, they have access to a chaplain and pastor every day, providing spiritual nurture and someone who can help them talk through problems and challenges. Sometimes there are spiritual issues—when residents feel they’re approaching the end of their life, they may want to talk about that. My training taught me the skills I need to be in tune with residents in their grief process as they approach the end of life.
All families deal with grieving in different ways. After someone has passed, one of the challenges I’ve faced is working with families who don’t agree on how grandma and grandpa should be remembered in a memorial service. Other times I may get into conversations with people about family grudges they’ve held for a long time. I try to work with them on those issues and sometimes refer them out to other counselors as appropriate.
Q: How do you help seniors maintain ties with the congregation they used to frequent more often?
A: On Sunday mornings, we provide our residents with transportation to local churches. We encourage them to get out in the community and attend church if they can.
I meet with a clergy group every month, and we discuss what I can do to partner with them because we do have clergy who refer their congregants to us. I appreciate when they call me ahead of time and say, “Mrs. Jones is coming in next week, and she’s from this particular church. Would you let her know who you are and what services you provide?” Most local clergy appreciate having a partner-in-ministry in one of our communities to supplement the spiritual care they offer.
Additionally, I have partnered to bring other spiritual care services into AlmaVia. For instance, Rabbi Jerry Levi leads services for our Jewish residents. Spiritual care extends to all residents, no matter their beliefs, and my role is to ensure those needs are being met.
Q: How does this holistic approach to wellness support seniors’ overall wellbeing?
A: We care for the whole person, and that includes not only their physical and emotional needs but also their spiritual needs. We have weekly care team meetings where we discuss residents who are having difficulties and coordinate how we can best meet their needs. I’m part of that care team, and I’m at those meetings to make sure we are addressing their spiritual needs, as well.
Spiritual care is at the center of life for some residents and we consider it an essential part of out commitment to holistic wellness.