What is pastoral care?

Pastoral care is a term commonly associated with religion and its place in the healthcare setting can be misunderstood. To celebrate pastoral care awareness week, we hear from our pastoral care workers, who share real-life stories and shed light on their work.

At St Joseph’s Home, we believe in caring for residents as persons, not patients. That means caring for residents beyond their physical needs, but also their psychosocial and spiritual needs. Since the Home started in 1978, our Canossian Sisters and the laity have been accompanying the dying and their families.

Today, a dedicated pastoral care team looks into the spiritual needs of our staff, residents and their families.

The job starts with caring for others and self

Lyn Che, our pastoral care staff, goes on her daily rounds. She visits bedbound residents and makes it a point to stop for a couple minutes longer. Sometimes, she helps to wipe their faces or neaten their blouses. Other times, she sits in silence with them.

  • (Insert as quote) “The big job of caring for residents starts with the smallest task. I find simple tasks like wiping their faces or accompanying them for five to ten minutes do not take long, but can mean the world to residents,” remarks Lyn.

Aside from meeting residents on a daily basis, our pastoral care team also makes it a point to welcome new residents. They become friendly faces that ease the transition into a still unfamiliar home away from home.

The job is unifying

In a nursing home and hospice, death is unsurprising and at times, at the forefront. When faced with our residents’ deaths, care staff are also challenged with our own thoughts and feelings about it.

This makes death a unifying experience. It also creates opportunities for the pastoral care team to bring to light feelings of fear, regret, relief, hope and more amongst the staff and residents.

As part of our Home’s tradition, a memorial table is set up outside the bedrooms of residents who have recently passed away. On the table sits a candle, a photo in memory of the resident and a guest book.

Staff and residents, who knew this resident, would gather for a short prayer and a minute of silence. In that silence, they remember the memories shared. They let the flutter of emotions settle and sink in. Afterwards, each person is invited to pen down any thoughts that they have.

The job is a privilege

Rose Lee, another one of our pastoral care staff, considers her job a privilege. Having served as a pastoral care staff for more than ten years, she has encountered residents without next-of-kin pass peacefully within minutes. She has also witnessed residents, who having seen their grandchildren graduate, struggle to accept that they have reached the end. The window between the first signs of dying and the time of death can range from minutes to weeks. To Rose, her job is the here-and-now moments that she has with them.

Rose remembers one resident, Tim. Tim’s children would not describe him as a good father. He left his wife and children when they were at a tender age. Most days, he gambled. After his admission in the home, his outpatient consults became opportunities to purchase a 4D or TOTO ticket.

Tim and Rose would chat about lucky numbers, his roommates and on occasion, the pain he was feeling. He never spoke about his family. Throughout his time in the home, only his youngest daughter visited him.

One quiet afternoon, Rose asked him, “How do you feel about leaving your family?” Softly but with certainty, he replied, “I let my wife down.”

She then shared that in our final moments, the “四道: 道謝 、道愛、道歉、道別” (Translated to mean: Thank you, I love you, I am sorry and goodbye) were difficult but important conversations to have.

Since his wife never visited him, he decided to write her a letter.

Deftly, Rose pulled a clean napkin from her pocket. She did not have fancy paper multi-coloured pens. With the clean napkin and the nearest ballpoint pen she could find, she wrote down his message:

“I am sorry for letting you down. Please forgive me. I love you.”

Tim folded this recycled napkin, with his precious message, and tucked it in his shirt pocket. For the next few weeks, it remained unread, but the care staff could see his demeanour relax.

In his final days, the social workers called to invite his family over. When his wife arrived, he pulled the napkin out and passed it to her. Some quiet moments passed while she read them. With eyes swelling, she responded, “I forgive you.”

Much like a cup, the pastoral care staff primary role is to be ready to listen and love. Pastoral care is not about preaching, and not about parrying off the reality of death. Pastoral care is about tending to the spirit, in the residents’ pace and alongside their pain.