Rev. Ann Bergstrom: Senior Care and the Challenges of Ministering to the Aging Community

Rev. Ann Bergstrom

Reverend Ann Bergstrom has worked with dementia patients with whom it can be difficult to communicate effectively. She has tried to connect patients to their identity and has used religious events to stimulate patients' senses and bring them joy.

Reverend Ann Bergstrom is a senior care chaplain at the Walker Methodist care communities based in Minneapolis, which provide housing and health care services for older adults at several locations throughout the Twin Cities. Their "senior living communities include independent living, assisted living, care suites, memory care, and even transitional care."1 As a Lutheran pastor and chaplain, Rev. Bergstrom has frequently found herself traveling between different care communities, meeting with residents who have a wide range of needs and abilities. She said that her role in each of the different care communities at Walker Methodist is to "help the other person access what they believe and what's meaningful for them and to help them work through spiritual dilemmas."

Though Rev. Bergstrom's mission and work is similar to that of many hospital chaplains, the population that she has worked with provides a unique challenge to a profession that relies very heavily on communication. Many of the residents in the assisted living communities Rev. Bergstrom has visited are "cognitively and physically limited in how they can communicate, so a different type of ministry is often needed." Many of the patients that she has worked with suffer from dementia, a condition that can affect their memory, communication skills, and ability to focus and maintain conversation.2 Thus, the task of helping these residents access what is meaningful in their lives can be difficult. Rev. Bergstrom described the challenge of caring for residents with dementia.

Their world has become so limited that they may not be able to carry on a conversation, so [my work] becomes more about [building] a relationship and connecting with them. They are still able to connect to who they are. I may be talking to a resident who is really demented and it may sound like gibberish but I’m listening to snatches of something that is clear about who they are. 
—Rev. Ann Bergstrom

Rev. Bergstrom, however, enjoys the challenge of working with residents afflicted by dementia because "it's not logical or linear [work] but it's creative work. It's not about getting concrete information but rather the meaning is important."

A patient may not be making sense, but if I know he loved fly-fishing earlier in his life, he's still a fly-fisherman now. [If] he says things about fly-fishing I can use that to help him connect to his identity.
—Rev. Ann Bergstrom

In addition to connecting residents to their core experiences, Rev. Bergstrom has found that "anything sensory brings joy to patients." Often times, she may use touch, smell, or music to connect with residents "since that part of the brain is not often really affected by dementia." Sometimes she's used religious events to stimulate a resident's senses.

A worship service [can provide] a lot of sensory stuff: music, communion, incense, and a community. People with dementia still come to worship services even though they can't sing or understand; it connects well with them. They make meaning of it, people can listen, hear, and experience and it will connect to their experiences.
—Rev. Ann Bergstrom

Even though she strongly believes that activity work, such as a group outing, is both very necessary and beneficial for elderly patients, its advantages are often limited because "when the activity is done, it's done." In contrast, Rev. Bergstrom said that "reminiscence work, helping [patients] connect to their identity, has much more of a lasting effect."

In the communities she's served, Rev. Bergstrom has often visited with many residents who are nearing the end of their lives.

Generally [when] people [are] nearing the end of their lives, their relationships with [other] people and higher power often become much more central, and [they can] access that for meaning, hope, and comfort.
—Rev. Ann Bergstrom

Although she stressed that this is a generalization and does not apply to everyone, her work as a chaplain has allowed her to help residents "feel known and valued" at a time in their lives when their relationships with others, or with a higher power, might be more important to them.

  1. "Our Care Services," Walker Methodist, accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.walkermethodist.org/senior-care-services.
  2. "What is Dementia?" Alzheimer’s Association, accessed December 17, 2013, https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia.