One of the UK's largest residential care home networks has just appointed its first digital chaplain. Revd Dr Chris Swift, Director of Chaplaincy and Spirituality for MHA and a member of our action research group, has more.
Methodist Homes (MHA) has been providing residential care for older people since 1945. Right from the start it had chaplains as part of each home and today it employs 140 people providing religious and spiritual care across the UK. During the pandemic, when digital media became such an important way to keep people connected, we took the decision to employ our first Digital Chaplain. In June 2021 Eleanor Puttock joined the MHA Chaplaincy to enable chaplains to hone their skills in digital production and communication, enabling MHA residents, staff and our supporters to receive accessible and high quality content.
The decision to make a commitment to the continuing role of digital media emerged out of the COVID crisis. In part it’s a decision that came out of evidence from qualitative in-depth interviews carried out with 6 chaplains which took place quarterly from May 2020. This has created a valuable resource of qualitative data about the way spiritual care was provided during the pandemic. For example, one chaplain commented:
In some cases, it’s something we can maybe take into the future. There’s one lady I am doing regular calls with and she has a grandson in Australia and a great granddaughter and they have been joining the zoom calls, when she wouldn’t normally have that direct contact with them, so that’s really good.
Although chaplains spoke repeatedly about the importance of physical presence in pastoral care, a variety of issues can mean this isn’t always possible.
A relative may wish to be present but is unable to travel; sharing in an event such as a family wedding isn’t possible; or staying connected to a local place of worship has become difficult. Digital solutions to these issues offer a plausible alternative to isolation and disconnection. Even with a return to more normal working patterns the lessons learned during COVID will inform the way forward. We anticipate that digital media will connect people who might otherwise be separated from contacting loved ones for a variety of reasons. For example, a new MHA Memorial Day began in 2020 and is being repeated in September 2021, enabling residents, staff - and relatives at home - to share in an important service of remembrance at the same time.
Links can be made and, with the right technology, sensory obstacles can be met and overcome, For example, MHA is investing money in the acquisition of so-called ‘Tiny Tablets’ (see the image), meaning people with limitations to sight can see video content as a much larger size than that offered by a typical tablet PC.
Given the needs of residents and members in MHA, the challenge to provide accessible technology has been key to our pandemic response. This has meant a wide range of product testing to see which systems work best for people – including family members striving to keep connected.
The simplicity of the portal system and voice-activated technology, have given ease of access to those wanting a dedicated contact with a particular relative. This has been especially important when the use of a device requires staff facilitation and, during the pandemic, it was not always easy for staff to be available at the moment a relative wanted a video call. Making the operation simpler has increased the agency and independence of residents.
The Digital Chaplain will ensure that the lessons learned during the pandemic provide lasting remedies to some of the problems that existed before COVID-19. Whether that’s ways to keep in touch with people far distant from the home, or being able to see high-quality images of significant places from the past, the development of digital resources will continue to play a part in pastoral care and religious services.