Chaplaincy to Older People

Churches are often focused on how to engage with young people more effectively. But Debbie Thrower, former broadcaster, pioneer of Anna Chaplaincy and team leader of The Gift of Years, reminds us that the older population can feel just as separated from God and alienated as some young people do. At a time when our society is facing a loneliness epidemic, The Gift of Years network and its Anna Chaplaincy initiative are offering an opportunity for Christians to build a Common Good with those who are physically and spiritually isolated. Fulfilling Christ’s mission to love others can lead to personal fulfilment too.

In common with other developed countries, the demographic changes Britain is experiencing are dramatic. There are now more people in the UK aged 60 and above than there are under 18,[1] and by 2040 the number of people over 85 is predicted to more than double to 3.4 million.[2] Our rapidly ageing population brings with it challenges, but there are also opportunities to help change lives for the better.

Ageing is a journey, which for every human person includes a spiritual dimension – whether they have a faith or not.[3] The fact that spiritual fulfilment can improve our physical and mental health is supported by evidence – from more than 1,200 medical studies showing a link between faith and religious practices and health benefits. These include an improved immune system, faster recovery rates and an increased ability to cope with illness.[4]The importance of spiritual health has been recognised by the UN[5] and is also one of the four dimensions to well-being defined by the World Health Organisation, alongside physical, mental and social well-being.[6] Spiritual Care is now a professionally recognised practice within the NHS, which seeks to help people rediscover hope, resilience and inner strength in times of illness, injury, transition and loss.[7] However, while identifying and responding to spiritual need is within the remit of all health and social care workers, staff do not always detect the need for spiritual support, or have time to give it, and often they can be uncomfortable with broaching spiritual issues with patients.[8] 

People of goodwill across the churches are well placed to help address this growing need. They are primarily concerned with spiritual matters, are present in most communities and have a desire to build relationships for the Common Good. Many older people are isolated and unable to be part of a faith community in a traditional sense, such as attending church services and community events, due to health and mobility problems or because they live in residential care. The Anna Chaplaincy approach can help tackle this, by bringing spiritual care to older people, wherever they are. 

Anna Chaplaincy is part of The Gift of Years programme, run by The Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF). The Gift of Years is a core part of BRF’s overall vision to transform lives and communities, through inspiring, equipping and enabling churches to meet older people’s spiritual needs. The Chaplaincy initiative is named after the widow Anna, who appears with Simeon in St. Luke’s Gospel; both fine role models of older people who believed God’s promises and whose faiths transcended loss and the diminishments of older age. 

Anna Chaplains can be lay or ordained; they work in care homes, private homes, churches and community settings with people of any or no faith. The Anna Chaplains network is supported through local churches, and is growing across the country. Now with 22 Chaplains – operating from Southampton to Lytham St Anne’s – The Gift of Years Network, as a whole which also includes others in equivalent roles, is more than 50 strong. 

Each church or community who wishes to appoint an Anna Chaplain receives bespoke help and advice from The Gift of Years programme. BRF does not employ the Anna Chaplains, but acts in an advisory role helping churches and communities recruit suitable staff or volunteers. Once a relationship is established, The Gift of Years team run training days and signpost other relevant training, resources and literature. 

What is distinctive about Anna Chaplaincy is that it is ecumenical, community-based, and it takes a relational and narrative approach to helping people navigate the choppy waters of older age. 

As the general population becomes older and frailer, churches need to adapt to serve senior citizens in the community more effectively and to model the fact that that every human being matters, not least the oldest. Anna Chaplains are sent out with the authority, credibility and affirmation of the churches in whose name they visit. In this way, they provide an effective way for churches to reach out to older members of the community.

As an Anna Chaplain listens to the story of a person’s life they are validating that person’s human dignity. It is through our personal histories and the telling of our story that we make sense of who we are, our identity past, present, and future. That deeply human person to person connection is priceless: it is indeed the foundation of the Common Good. Building relationships with people who may be isolated, alone, sick or scared is a vital mission for Christians which provides profound benefits – not to just the recipient, but also to the Chaplain and to the wider community, too. In calling forth the spirituality of the vulnerable, the beauty and fragility of humanity is revealed.

Nora, a former nurse, was matter of fact about her situation: “I’ve gradually got to what I now am, at 90, seriously old. And the process of getting seriously old is not particularly attractive. You become so frustrated.” She was grateful when an Anna Chaplain could spend time visiting her. Such visits are never one-way affairs. There’s much to be gleaned on both sides. 

As Nora’s Anna Chaplain said: “What I love about visiting you is that we always have something up our sleeves to share with each other, something we’ve read during the week, a poem or a prayer…”

Nora replied: “And I’m really, always, totally delighted when we say our prayers and you read the prayers for me and it’s wonderful and of course I can tell you anything I especially want prayed for, and you include that, which makes it even more personal.”

Debbie Thrower

With thanks to Debbie Thrower and The Bible Reading Fellowship. For more information about Anna Chaplaincy and Resources visit. The Gift of Years DVD can be obtained from BRF Online. The Gift of Years Bible Reflections for Older People are available here. 


  • 1 Later Life in the United Kingdom, Age UK, February 2016, 3.
  • 2 Later Life in the United Kingdom, 3.
  • 3 Harriet Mowat and Maureen O’Neill, Insights 19; Spirituality and ageing: implications for the care and support of older people, Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services, January 2013, 2.
  • 4 Mowat, Insights 19; Spirituality and ageing: implications for the care and support of older people, 9.
  • 5 At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, delegates reached agreement on Agenda 21: The earth summit strategy to save our planet (Dan Sitarz). The paper stated that “Health ultimately depends on the ability to manage successfully the interaction between the physical, spiritual, biological and economic/social environment (factors).”
  • 6 World Health Organisation Publication: Year 1991; Issue 9290211407, World Health Organisation, Chapter 4.
  • 7 Spiritual Care: (30 March 2016).
  • POST note 481: Palliative and End of Life Care, Houses of Parliament Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, October 2014, 2.