Elderly hearts stirred afresh

16 May 2023

by Amy Galliford

Working as an aged care chaplain was not something Renee Ravestyn planned. But her dedication to encouraging those in seasons of suffering has seen her serving the elderly at Alexander Campbell House in Sydney’s Frenchs Forest for the past decade – leading devotions and grief groups, reading Scripture and praying with individuals.

The empowering Holy Spirit

Having grown up as a “missionary kid in Africa”, ministry and service have long been central to Renee’s vocation. Yet she describes the Holy Spirit as the unfailing, sustaining force that enables her to do this work.

“Over the years, I’ve learned to really rely on the Holy Spirit and trust that I am able to hear Him,” she says.

Renee sees this reliance as crucial for anyone in a position of pastoral care, referencing Christ’s own need for full dependence on the Father. She expresses that with “I in Him and Him in me, there is an intimate reliance on Him” and acknowledges that her work would be depleting without nurturing this oneness with God.

Companionship in suffering

Providing peace to those suffering compels Renee’s ministry. She sees her chaplaincy role as a ‘guest’ rather than a ‘host’ – an illustration she gleaned from the writings of John Swinton.

“I’m not hosting time with people. I’m not the great expert,” she says. “They’ve had amazing adventures in life and accomplished so much. I am a guest in their presence; I want to learn from them. They are hosting me in their life by inviting me in – it is very humbling.”

For many of the elderly clients she works with, Renee is aware that their greatest need is simple companionship through the journey of suffering. They are often experiencing physical limitations for the first time, needing a level of care that can no longer be provided by themselves or their families. While Renee knows she can’t fix these issues, her aid to them takes the form of gentle encouragement and practical support.

At a deeper level, Renee explains that there is a distinct need for the elderly to reflect on their lives and be assured of their value in the face of a world that emphasises their limitation: “It’s so important for them to realise that they have had a life of purpose and that they can still have a life of purpose – right until the very end.”

Moving towards a forever-home

Almost literally, her clients are ‘walking through the valley of the shadow of death’, often acutely aware that this will be the last of their earthly homes. Though Renee’s conversations might tilt towards the darker parts of being human, she quickly highlights that they are also filled with hope: “Especially in those who have a relationship with Jesus, there’s so much hope – they are moving into their forever-home.”

For those with this foundation, a marked peace emerges from a state of surrender. In many cases, this surrender follows a great loss of dignity. Individuals that were once self-sufficient and independent are encountering health challenges and a sudden need for support, often for the first time. Consistently, their battle becomes rediscovering identity, following the loss of what they once were.

For these individuals facing the ailments that often come with aging, this battle becomes a process of letting go. “The elderly embark on a journey in humility. Aging is humbling,” Renee says.

Embracing our human journey

Renee reflects on the humility and suffering of aging by referring to Henri Nouwen’s idea of ‘embracing our human journey’ – a journey that inevitably involves death. While the world’s view of death lends itself to despair, followers of Christ rest assured by the hope of eternity.

“Jesus experienced death himself, but there is resurrection life for each one of us as there was for him,” she says. “This is only a very tiny blip, our life. Our time on earth is very short compared to eternity. Our assurance comes with trusting, ‘Lord, we are part of your story, and your story is really big.’”

In conversation, Renee’s witness to the goodness of God forms a refrain that is as spontaneous as it is constant – a true picture of a “mouth filled with His praise”. She joyfully shares the testimony of one client called Jane. In the final decade of her life, before passing last year at 108, Jane reached true intimacy with Christ for the first time. Renee recalls her simple words: “I lay there all night talking to The Almighty.”

As The Almighty continues working through her ministry, Renee is witnessing countless examples of His kindness. Intimately working in the lives of the elderly, He is bringing new revelation and stirring hearts afresh – especially those on the brink of their forever-home.

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