These nurses spent decades in hospitals. Now they give health-spiritual care to aging parishes

Jan Linner has been a nurse for close to five decades, starting in 1973 and working in intensive care and critical care units at Victoria and St. Joseph’s Hospital in London, Ont.

When she retired from hospital nursing 10 years ago, she didn’t slow down. Instead, she began working as the parish nurse at Lambeth United Church, a role that links her experience in health care with tending to the spiritual needs of congregants.

There are about 60 certified parish nurses in Canada. Registered nurses can take on the role by completing special courses offered through some universities and seminary programs.

“We focus on holistic health, and we help people by preventing disease and helping to tolerate their diseases,” Linner said. “We take what the doctor tells the patient and what the minister tells the patient, and we combine all of that together for our clients and bring in the spiritual care as well.”

Linner retired as the parish nurse at the end of 2022 and Lambeth United hired a second congregant to take over — retired nurse Barb Sutherland, who worked for St. Joseph’s Hospital for close to 40 years, in neurology, family medicine and palliative care.

“To me, a parish nurse is someone who cares for the patient’s body, mind and spirit,” said Sutherland. “If any of those pieces are broken down or not functioning well, then it makes a change to the whole body. That’s why we look at the whole person, with an emphasis on the spiritual part.”

Building rapport

Linner and Sutherland have hosted workshops about organ donations, blood drives and first aid like CPR. They also have teams of volunteers who go out to speak to parishes who are feeling lonely or living through grief.

“Our congregations are aging, so we have a lot of elderly people who need a companion, someone who can talk to them, listen to them, and sometimes that’s all they need,” said Sutherland.

A man with gray hair smiles at the camera inside a church.  There are pews behind him and a window letting in light.
Rev. Doug Peck says the congregation at Lambeth United has greatly benefited from the parish nurse program. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Having an extra set of hands to help with health and spiritual care has been wonderful, said Rev. Doug Peck.

“I think it’s something to have within your church, and as part of your ministry team that is just becoming more and more crucial in this day and age because as much as we have aging demographics and probably the oldest demographics that we’ve ever had , at the same time, I’ve never seen more vibrant 90-year-olds in all my life,” Peck said.

Faith is a huge contributor to positive health.– Rev. Doug Peck, Lambeth United Church

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Linner divided up the congregation among volunteers and had people call each family to ensure they had everything they needed. She said she called about 180 families herself.

“People were really thankful for those phone calls,” Linner said.

Getting back to visiting people in their homes was very rewarding, Sutherland added.

“It’s one thing to see people at church and to talk for five or 10 minutes on a Sunday morning. When you visit somebody in their home, it’s a special time and they open up a little bit more to you, and you’re building rapport and friendships.”

Having a positive attitude, knowledge that someone is thinking of you, and guidance from a spiritual adviser can help someone who’s sick or dying, Peck said.

“I think faith is a huge contributor to positive health because often extreme emotions get in the way of a recovery plan. When we pray with people, their extreme emotions are lessened, and that creates a greater ability to engage in a health-care program .”

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