Carmelite-run ministry connects young, old

First slide

If you flipped on the television around this time last year, you might have caught a glimpse of Stacey Jackson alongside religious sisters in an episode of "The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns," a Lifetime reality series following five women as they discerned the religious life.

Fast-forward a year later and Jackson again is surrounded by religious sisters, but this time off-camera. And she's not donning a novice's habit, but rather an engagement ring and the desire to serve a demographic often forgotten or neglected.

The 27-year-old is spearheading "Serving the Aged Lovingly Today," a weeklong mission program through the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm in Germantown, N.Y. - featured on "The Sisterhood" - that connects young women with the elderly through service.

Grounded in pastoral care, program participants join nursing home residents in their everyday activities, play games with them and sit, talk and pray with them. After a successful pilot program this summer, four immersion weeks are planned at Carmelite-run nursing homes or assisted-living facilities next year: Feb. 29-March 5 in Bayside, N.Y.; June 20-25 in Staten Island, N.Y.; July 18-23 in Fort Thomas, Ky.; and Aug. 1-6 in Dublin.

Jackson said her road from "The Sisterhood" to engagement and to employment with the Carmelites was unexpectedly fast. "My spiritual director said God can work quickly, and he sure was right," laughed the bubbly Jackson, who graduated from Seton School in Manassas and grew up attending St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Clifton.

Hired by the Carmelites last January, Jackson said the job is a "perfect fit."

"I've long had a passion for serving the elderly. You often go into it thinking you are bringing something for them, but leave thinking, 'Oh my gosh, you've given me so much.'"

Geared toward college-age women, SALT welcomes participants of all ages and faiths. Young women stay at the convent or nearby while serving at a nursing home. Hour-long enrichment sessions are interspersed throughout the week to give the women tools to guide their interactions. Discussions include compassionate listening, ministering to individuals with dementia and the meaning of pastoral care.

"Pastoral care is different from a social visit," said Jackson. "It's dealing with life as it is, not life as it should be. Women are encouraged not to simply chat about the weather or engage in small talk, but if someone opens up about something painful, to sit with them in their pain.

"Some don't have a lot of visitors to talk to," she said, and because many residents are near the end of their lives, "they are also more inclined to reflect on the past."

Though not specifically a discernment program, "it can be a great thing to do as part of discerning because you are getting a sense of the religious life," said Jackson. During the pilot, it was "amazing to see the ladies' eyes opening up and see them forming these relationships," she said. "It was moving on a very deep level."

Participants are encouraged to stay in touch with the individuals they've met, and the Carmelites keep them updated after the week ends.

Ministering to the elderly often is overlooked, even in Catholic service circles, said Jackson. "Sometimes once the elderly's physical needs are met, people think their care is finished and neglect their spiritual needs. The Carmelites, however, look at the whole person."

With insights earned through the ups and downs of life, the elderly often contain "rich wisdom" that is available to those who take the time to listen, said Jackson. SALT participants learn to be compassionate listeners, and that ability translates into their interactions with parents, friends, strangers and spouses, she said.

"And when you're talking to a 90-year-old woman who has a deep peace about things, it helps you stop worrying about things in life that are not a big deal," said Jackson. "They put life in perspective, and that is an amazing gift."

Find out more

To learn more about SALT or to apply, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015