By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now
NEWTON—Julie Sparks’s family used to sing “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” after going their separate ways following family gatherings.
It’s a song that has meaning to them. It’s also a song Sparks and other members of the Corona Carolers recently sang to Sparks’s mother and other memory-care and assisted-living residents at Newton Presbyterian Manor.
“It’s a beautiful story, because her mom is a pianist,” said one of the singers and group spokesperson Jacque Wedel. “Anytime they were together as a family, that was their parting song.”
Sparks’s mom, Betty Dick, mouthed the words to the song while they sang at the Manor. It was hard for the singers to hold back the tears.
“I didn’t know she remembered the words because she has dementia, but God has obviously put them in her heart,” Sparks said.
The Corona Carolers, who sing most weeks at Presbyterian Manor in Newton, make due with what they have to work with, since they can’t go inside the building right now. They sing while standing outside through the residents’ windows.
“We yell through the cracks,” Wedel said. “We sing through the cracks. It’s all we get.”
She was talking about the cracks in the residents’ windows and how they communicate with them.
They’ve also had some “unexpected sights,” as Sparks called them. One of those included a naked resident sitting in a chair.
“She was sitting in the chair a foot away from me,” Wedel said. “It wasn’t like I was peeping.”
They’ve also seen the unfortunate progressions residents make, like with one couple, who used to listen to the carolers in two chairs in the room. Then, one of the chairs was empty, and then it was gone. Wedel said they asked the woman where the man went, and she replied he passed away.
They’ve also sung to a few people just days before they died.
“We think maybe we’re a blessing to them,” said one of the other carolers, Susan Williams.
Wedel believes God formed the group.
“It was a brainchild originally from Susan Williams,” Wedel said. “I told her we had done a prayer walk just as the retirement homes were shutting down in late March. She thought it would be great to go sing at the windows, since that was really the only option we had to connect at this point.”
Then, when Wedel did her prayer walk downtown the day before they were going to sing, she ran into Sparks at a convenience store.
“God nudged me to ask her to join us, and she generously agreed,” Wedel said.
The group has been active since the end of March, just a week or two after retirement communities shuttered their doors. They sing traditional and favorite hymns, as well as seasonal hymns around the Fourth of July and Christmas carols at Christmas.
They sing at the Manor for one reason.
“It’s all about relationships,” Wedel said. “I, personally, had been going to sing hymns inside several times a month at Presbyterian [Manor] for several years and had developed relationships with several of the residents.”
She said she also made contacts to coordinate gathering “social-distanced” groups with the staff.
“The staff at Presbyterian is truly caring and loving to provide extra life enhancement,” Wedel said. “I can text any of the activity coordinators to unlock gates so that we can sing to those in the courtyard who might not see many faces otherwise.”
Della Mae Harr started that ministry years ago when she played the piano every Wednesday for all of the different halls at Presbyterian before COVID.
“I would join her in the memory-care unit and memory-care assisted living, so it was only natural that we would use the same traditional hymns that Della Mae was playing since we knew the residents were familiar with them,” Wedel said. “There are nine to 10 songs we sing in rotation, usually two verses of two songs at each window.”
They’ve formed several dear relationships with residents through the windows, as Wedel put it.
“When we started, there were two couples that shared rooms,” Wedel said. “Over the course of our time, the husband has passed away, and the wife has had to move into private rooms. Watching their transition/progression of aging and loss has been very hard, especially since we can only yell through the crack between the windows (which we have discovered is how the residents can hear best, but we still can’t hear them).”
The toughest part of the ministry is to not hear what the residents so desperately want to tell them.
“Often there is highway noise, HVAC systems running or other interference (mowers, etc.),” Wedel said. “I also personally have a deep need to comfort them through touch (hugs, hold their hands, etc.) during this extreme time of isolation. There have been several very dear men (who are passed away now, which is the tougher part of this ministry) that could very easily read our lips through the window.”
By the time the singers were on the second line of each song, they were able to sing along.
“The joy in their faces as we sing together is heavenly,” Wedel said. “Also, there are several residents that request certain hymns and then sing every word with us.”
She said other amazing relationships that have formed are between her school-age neighbor kids and the residents, who now are pen pals.
“I requested letters, artwork or colored pages from several of my amazing neighbors with kids that I would take along and have the staff share with the residents,” Wedel said. “Then the kids came to me and asked if they could go with me to sing. Wow. One of the residents wrote back to the kids, and the pen-pal relationship was born.”
Watching the youth interact through the windows with the residents brought tears, Wedel said.
“She continues to ask nearly every week how they are doing, and they continue sharing letters, art and concern for each other,” Wedel added.
Besides Williams, Wedel and Sparks, others instrumental in the group are RJ and Mary Ellen Tippin, and several other people join them to sing when they can, like the neighbor children and the Tippins’ grandchildren.
“The residents delight in seeing kids,” Wedel said. “You can see it reflected in their joyous faces.”
On a typical singing day, there are three to four of them.
The reception from the residents has been positive.
“There are several residents that come to the window, which unfortunately can’t be opened, so that they can look us in the eye as they sing with us,” Wedel said. “It’s an intensely satisfying reinforcement of our ministry.”
Sometimes, they pray with them if they know they’ve lost a spouse or aren’t doing well.
Even though there are rewards, there’s a difficult part.
“Watching them decline week by week is the hard part of senior ministry,” Wedel said. “We understand this happens regardless of the forced isolation, but it has become so much more dramatic since COVID.”
There are a number of residents who make it obvious they expect them every week now. One lady is always sitting at her window with the blinds up, which is their code residents are likely available and want company.
“She knows every word to every song and sings them with us,” Wedel said. “[Another resident] always has signs that he holds up when we’re done—‘Praise the Lord,’ then ‘Thank you!’ So sweet.”