Its been over two weeks now since I graduated and ended my time at the field placement site I had been interning at my final semester of senior year. I have been deeply missing my site these past couple weeks and I realized that despite my best efforts, I still have not sat down to write about my experience there. So I thought that in the midst of missing the place I had the complete privilege of calling, “my field placement site” last semester, I would finally sit down and write about it.
For my senior capstone requirement, I decided I would go the field placement route (or at least, that was my first choice). There’s a rather long process full of interviews, waiting, and uncertainty before being accepted into field placement, and after applying and being accepted, more interviews await. After interviewing and not receiving an offer from my top choice site, I then got an interview at one of my other top choice sites, which is the one I ended up being offered, and the offer I soon ended up accepting. I did my field placement at a local retirement community in my university’s town (for the sake of this blog being public to the world, I’m not going to use its name, just to err on the side of being extra cautious).
One of the primary reasons I put this site as one of my top three choices on my application was because of my grandfather – he has primary progressive aphasia which is a rather rare form of dementia that significantly impairs a person’s ability to produce and comprehend speech. My grandpa is my favorite person on the planet and having had personal experience being alongside him through his ‘cognitive decline’, I knew in my heart this placement site could be a great fit for me, and not only that, but I thought it could help me learn how to love him better. I can say with full confidence that it did both, and I cannot imagine having the field placement experience anywhere else.
This retirement community that I interned at houses around 700 individuals ranging from independent living, to assisted living, all the way to complete living care. I interned in the complete living care unit which houses approximately 80 residents, most of whom have various types of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, aphasia, and dementia. I worked primarily in the life enrichment office, which, you guessed it – seeks to enrich the lives of residents in complete living care.
This field placement allowed me to combine my love for psychology and for ministry in a variety of ways, for which I am very grateful. I was able to have a wide range of opportunities and responsibilities and in addition to working within the life enrichment office, I also had the joy of working alongside the chaplains as well, given my interests. I helped lead Bible studies each week, I administered cognitive assessments which test the residents vision as well as their ability to comprehend and produce speech. I helped lead Sunday worship, led crafts and various activities, did many one-on-one visits with residents, entered their activity logs into their data system, went on visits with the chaplains, and also helped with remembrance services for residents who had passed away.
My experience in this placement was diverse and rich. & along with being diverse and rich, it was also quite difficult. That being said, I am thankful to have been surrounded by the best people – staff, residents, & chaplains alike – to journey through such an experience with. I can say that some of the most meaningful, heavy but sacred experiences I’ve had so far occurred at my field placement site. Throughout the semester, 5 residents who I had developed rapport with passed away, and to be honest, it definitely makes you want to put up barriers to avoid feeling all of the loss and negative emotions that often come along with death and losing someone you had developed a relationship with. But I didn’t let myself do that – I didn’t let myself put up those barriers or set boundaries that prevented me from creating relationships with residents who, no matter their cognitive state, need the social interaction that I was there to provide. Having a disease that affects a person’s ability to communicate effectively does not make them any less human, which is something I think our society forgets sometimes. But this placement made me so passionate about spreading that truth, and it also helped me realize how important the ministry of presence really is. Throughout this placement, I listened to residents speak even though they were incapable of making any sense with their words whatsoever. I sat with residents who could no longer speak because of a stroke they had had. I read scripture to residents who were dying. I became close with one resident who would ask me five times within 15 minutes where I’m from. I held hands with a resident as they slowly & painfully suffered through an anxiety attack. I sat and talked with a resident who had just found out they had cancer. I prayed with residents who were in tears over their circumstances in life. All of which was heavy. But I let myself be human about it, which is something I need to cling to as I enter ministry – I am human. I was a calm presence and perhaps a rock for them to lean on in those moments, but then I went home afterwards and let myself process it, because if I learned anything while studying psychology for 4 years, it’s that we need to process any and all emotions and feelings rather than bottle them up or sweep them under the rug (no matter how icky they are). And so, I would go home after my field placement each day, and I would talk with my housemates if I needed to, I’d cry if I needed to, I would call a mentor if I needed to, I would go on a run to release some of the heaviness, because it was a lot for 22 year old me to absorb – all of these experiences were new and ‘firsts’ for me, but nonetheless, experiences I’ll be having in the future as a pastor. And as the chaplains there reminded me often, that’s why outlets and Sabbath are both so important.
One experience I’ll never forget happened just two weeks before my placement ended, and it was perhaps one of the worst days in my young ministry career so far. But to preface, I am fine, and it was a lesson and period of growth that I believe I ultimately needed to experience at some point.
A week prior to this experience, I had gone with one of the chaplains to visit a resident who was not doing well, and when we got there, one of the residents kids was present. The chaplain and I read scripture and prayed with both of them, and it was a very beautiful moment. A week later, I was carrying out some responsibilities in that same house that resident lived in, and I saw that same child was in the room with their parent (the resident that the chaplain and I had visited the week prior). I had this nudge to go into the room and see the both of them. But, I didn’t. And a couple hours after this nudge that I had ignored, as I was walking out to leave my placement that day, one of the staff members stopped me and told me that this very resident had passed away. My heart sank a little, to say the least.
At this retirement community, they have what is called a, ‘final farewell’ whenever a resident passes away. This is where the chaplains, staff, and various residents who knew the deceased individual come and stand, sing, pray, and share memories about that resident before the funeral home wheels the body out of the house. I wanted to stick around for that, as it would be my first ‘final farewell’ and I thought selfishly it would give me some closure. I stayed, and it was most certainly a beautiful little ceremony, and as I fought back tears at that final farewell, I told myself I would never ignore a nudge like that again. Needless to say, I was filled with regret and anger, and beat myself up about it for days. But I am thankful for the chaplains at my field placement who could relate to this feeling and assured me that while it does happen and it does suck, we can’t be so hard on ourselves. And I’m thankful for my pastor who helped me navigate my feelings and thoughts days after this experience, when I finally let myself talk about it. (This is why we need people older & wiser than us in our lives to help us through new experiences like this am I right)
Looking back on that particular experience, it did end up being a lesson – it obviously taught me to not ignore nudges that are clearly from God, but I also learned not to tear myself apart when I make mistakes like that or even when something happens that’s out of my control. Ministry is hard and frustrating and confusing sometimes, but it’s also the most beautiful thing I’ve ever gotten to be a part of and I cannot believe (in the best way possible) that I’m called to it.
Looking back on this field placement experience as a whole, I’m grateful for all of the many lessons I learned – for being able to better communicate with this population, for realizing how important a simple prayer, or holding someone’s hand, or sitting quietly and calmly with them can be. For stretching myself, for being vulnerable and letting myself get close with the residents despite my fears of losing them, and for letting myself feel all the feelings if I did. For the many papers I wrote about communication and neurodegenerative diseases and the ways I will refer to that research in the future. I will hold on tight to this experience forever and believe I will be a better minister because of it. I never anticipated having such a diverse, meaningful, heavy, life changing experience my last semester of college, but my gratitude abounds. I love people & I love ministering to them – with my presence, with my listening ears, with prayers, with sermons, with conversations over coffee – and I can’t wait to see the ways in which God continues to call me & use me, my love for ministry, & for psychology – what a fun life we get to live for him!