Reevaluating the diocese’s mission to the elderly

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The decision to sell the Camden Diocese’s nursing homes reflects the realities and trends in health care in America today, but it is also an opportunity to reevaluate the diocese’s mission to its oldest members, said Martin Idler, executive director of Diocesan Health Services.
The three nursing homes the diocese plans to sell serve only a small number of Catholics in South Jersey, he said, and the profits from their sale will go toward parish-based programs that can benefit many more people.
Parish nurse programs, and the senior center at St. Peter Parish, Merchantville, are two examples of effective parish ministry to seniors, he said.
The realities of health care in America – the trend to try to keep people in their homes and insufficient Medicaid reimbursement to health care facilities – “are forcing us to reflect on our mission and to do something positive,” said Idler.
He pointed out that that mission came about “indirectly.” When the Little Servant Sisters came to South Jersey in 1940, their intention was not to establish what was to become the diocese’s first nursing home, St. Mary’s Catholic Home. They came to the diocese at the invitation of Bishop Bartholomew J. Eustace who told them that “time would tell what kind of work they would undertake,” according to Building God’s Kingdom, a history of the diocese published in 1987.
While farming land in Cherry Hill, they were approached by an elderly woman who needed a place to live. Her arrival was interpreted as a sign that the sisters should care for the elderly, and eventually they established a long term facility on their farmland.
Since then, Idler stressed, the diocese’s facilities have been staffed by workers who are both compassionate and professional. But now, he said, decades after the facilities were built, with changes in how health care is administered and paid for, nursing homes are not the best way for the local church to minister to its senior members.
He noted that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began the process of selling its nursing homes a year ago. He also said that the three Camden Diocesan nursing homes represent only a fraction of the 60 facilities in South Jersey, and that nursing home occupancy is declining in the state.
Idler pointed out that parish nursing programs, already in 23 parishes of the diocese, can offer health screenings, preventative health care and medical referrals.
The future of the diocese’s ministry to its elderly population, like the decision to sell the nursing homes, will be the result of prayer, study and consultation, he said.