ASK FATHER: Visiting retired, elderly priests

From a reader..


I have a particular devotion to the Priesthood and priests and would like to start visiting retired priests who are no longer able to live in residence in a rectory and have had to move on into the nursing home for priests this Lent. There’s a bit of a problem, though. I’ve never visited elderly people, let alone elderly retired priests who likely don’t have much longer in this world. I’m also an introvert and not particularly great at making small talk with strangers, and notoriously great at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or saying something that sounds great in my head, but comes out completely wrong or gets misinterpreted and somehow offends someone. As a result, I’ve always shied away from this kind of work and stuck to cleaning priests’ bathrooms.

Do you (or your readership who may have done this before) have any practical advice or tips for going about doing this?

This is a good thing.  Thanks for thinking about this.  Many priests are pretty much alone in their lives, even though they are surrounded by people.  That gets worse as they get older.  I suspect that that is what awaits me, as a matter of fact, given my circumstances.

Every individual situation is going to present different issues.   Sometimes just being there is good enough.  Sometimes conversation is what is needed.  Some people are talkers and some listeners.   You’ll have to figure it out as you go.

It may be that some priests will tell stories about decades past, which could be pretty interesting.  They have lore about the diocese that will be lost with their passing.  Seminarians, too, should listen to the stories old priests tell.   Sometimes I think that, with their consent of course, their stories should be recorded.

It may be that Father has a hard time talking, but he can listen.  Perhaps he has a hard time reading. You could read aloud to him.

Visit and assess.  Talk to the people taking care of him or who know him well.  Figure it out.

You have your own inclinations, you write above.  However, remember that true charity involves sacrificing one’s own inclinations for what is truly good for the other.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Priests and Priesthood and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. rhhenry says:

    Here are the two things that helped me most when visiting when elderly family and friends:

    1) Wait for them to finish talking, especially if they are having trouble. A friend of mine with Parkinson’s had a fully intact mind but a mouth that would not cooperate. One day, as I was having a conversation with him and another friend, the third man kept interrupting him to guess what he was trying to say. That third man eventually left the conversation first, at which point my friend with Parkinson’s turned to me and said, “I hate it when they won’t let me finish!” Put another way, be very patient. Fill the long pauses with prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking Him to comfort the person you are visiting and to help you to say the right thing(s).

    2) Come prepared with 4-5 topics to discuss and 4-5 bullet points about each. This makes those awkward silences less awkward, as you will have your next conversation ready to go after 15-20 seconds of silence. You can’t go wrong with conversations about the weather and sports — everyone has experienced weather, and everyone is aware of sports, even if they don’t follow them. These topics can get spun out, too, to keep the conversation going — talk about the weather where your relatives live, or talk about the friendly “arguments” you’re having with your friends about the World Series, or talk about why you don’t like soccer, jai alai, or whatever.

    Those two techniques helped me a lot when talking to very elderly family and friends, especially when they were very frail both physically and mentally, when our conversations tended to be one-sided. But the best advice comes from Fr. Z. in his post: “You’ll have to figure it out as you go.” Pray to God to help you, and trust that He will. I’ll pray for you, too.

  2. APX says:

    I suspect that that is what awaits me, as a matter of fact, given my circumstances.

    As someone who has chosen the celibate life with hopes of entering religious life and dying surrounded by my fellow sisters praying for me, I too suspect on the contrary I too will end up spending my days alone and dying alone. It’s one of the downsides to the celibate life lived in the world. I’ve heard of people dying alone and not being discovered for years, sometimes decades after the fact.

  3. Nan says:

    This is why we need friends of varying ages and to become friends with our friends children. I’ve always spent time with old people because we had plenty of grandparents and great grandparents, great aunts and uncles, older cousins, etc.

    The old priests would likely love visitors and if you have children, or can borrow some, that’s a rare treat. The social worker at the place mom was in would bring her small children around to see the grandma’s and grandpa’s where she worked and they absolutely loved it.

    When I volunteered at a nursing home, which I stopped after mom’s stroke, one of the ladies was prepared for my visit and had a little tea party.

    Your visits will be valued.

  4. mharden says:

    “I suspect that that is what awaits me, as a matter of fact, given my circumstances.”

    In my experience of visiting retired priests in nursing homes, sadly, even diocesan priests have fewer and fewer visitors. When they first move in, numerous parishioners will drop by. But over the years, some former parishioners die off and others forget or move on. So even a formerly beloved parish priest faces loneliness and can use our support.

  5. Eoin OBolguidhir says:

    When I read the post, I felt the Working of Providence. I had recently thought of writing with a similar question. In my work, I see retired Priests in my office for medical visits, often alone, sometimes in states of neglect. Some of these men may have last been incardinated in a far away diocese, and are the last of their local family. Frequently, they live solitary lives in apartments. I have only ever seen one brought in by a niece of nephew, and I have never seen a Priest brought in by a grand-niece or nephew. If they are not Priests of the local diocese or an order of religious with a house nearby, I don’t know whom to contact regarding their well being. I’m sure the local Bishops would all have a kindly solicitude towards their brother Priests, but do you call the chancery and notify them of the situation, or the vicar foraine, or someone else? I don’t ask rhetorically. I am limited in what I may disclose to others regarding the health of my patients, except for certain agencies of the State in which I reside, and in most cases, that would start so much trouble that it might make the Priest’s lives worse.

    I think this is a problem that will worsen as our Presbyterate ages and society fragments. Visiting these men would be an excellent ministry for seminarians, and would benefit both, I am sure. I wonder if there is a national organization of seminarians that could take up the challenge as a corporate apostolate. Do any of the seminarians who read this blog know of such an organization?

    For practical advise, when it is appropriate, I try always to remember to ask the elderly Priests for their blessing at end of our visit. If he gives his blessing, put your head down and your hands together, and show that you are grateful. Quietly and kindly asking him for his blessing is a worthy acknowledgement that his Priesthood, to which he has given his very life, is intrinsically good, and necessary for the Salvation of the world, and of benefit you, and of benefit to all around him. It increases our respect of the Holy and the humility of the one who asks.

  6. Charivari Rob says:

    A few thoughts, from visiting friends, family, parishioners, neighbors, customers of many ages over most of my life in many types of facilities…

    1. Definitely do listen, and do give them time to answer. Some folks, both older and younger, take longer to get a full thought or sentence out. Don’t jump in, don’t anticipate, don’t take it on yourself to answer questions for them.

    2. Do take guidance from the staff about the person you’re going to visit (and also about who needs visitors). What a good time of day is to come for that person, how long their energy and/or attention span will last, favorite topics, topics to avoid, which ear is the good ear (if there’s a difference)…

    3. Do take guidance from the staff about the routine of the facility and resident/patient, shift change time, meal times, etc… and don’t disrupt those routines. Most importantly, do respect posted visiting hours.

    4. If their tray comes, let them eat – even at the institutions with good food, well… it’s not improved by letting it go to room temp. You can chatter on while they eat, or it’s a good time to excuse yourself for a few minutes to go find the public restroom, or in a lot of places you can order an inexpensive guest plate and dine with them.

    5. Take cold/flu precautions seriously. Wash hands thoroughly. The resident/patient population is often more vulnerable. If you’ve got symptoms – postpone your visit. Facilities might post alerts or advisories during outbreaks.

    6. Old-timers, especially, sometimes try to be as hospitable as possible with their limited means and humble abode. They’ll tell you to use their restroom or offer to share their meal tray, snack, etc… Don’t. It isn’t being rude to them to decline. The staff cleans & cleans those in-room restrooms and you don’t know what needs or infection vulnerabilities the resident (or their roommate) has and they don’t need you messing things up and making more work – excuse yourself and walk to the lobby. As for the food… the staff does (in many places) track how well the resident is eating & drinking (both quantity & types) – so don’t skew the data.

    7. If the person you’re visiting is having memory issues – don’t make them uncomfortable or frustrated about it. Don’t press them with “But who was so-and-so that you were starting to talk about a minute ago?” or “X? But – a few minutes ago I’m sure you said Y!” You can gently steer conversation if needed.

    8. Do be ready to tell them about yourself.

    9. With someone with any mobility issues or who is frail, don’t do anything like helping them stand/sit/move from chair to bed (even if the resident asks you) unless you’ve been cleared to do so by a member of the staff. Residents/patients are not necessarily the most reliable authority on what they can do – sometimes the independent spirit writes checks the body can’t cash.

    10. Do find out if there’s something simple you can bring on your next visit – a newspaper or magazine.

  7. Christine says:

    My first suggestion is to pray before visiting, asking the Holy Spirit to put words into your mouth. My second suggestion would be to just go and talk to them and try not to overthink it. Before they are elderly, they are people. People sometimes seem afraid of older people, and that’s a shame. The best way to get comfortable is to just go and talk to them. I knew an elderly priest that was just amazing. He had lived an amazing life, and had the most incredible stories.

    If you have children, I would consider bringing them. Encourage the kids to ask questions and tell their stories to the priest. It would be good for both the kids and the priests.

    Lastly, I would strongly recommend bringing water, or salt, or any other items for the priest to bless. Always ask for the priests’ blessing and maybe even ask him to hear your confession. You might also want to consider buying a Mass kit (or borrowing what you need from your parish) and see if Fr. would want you to assist him in celebrating a Mass at the nursing home. Many older people become depressed because they feel they are useless. Asking the older priests to do his priestly duties will make him feel needed and useful and hopefully will bring him joy.

    What a beautiful thing for you to do this Lent.

  8. stephen c says:

    These are all good comments. If I could add some humble advice, from years of being around very old people (including quite a few who were born when Queen Victoria was not yet a very old woman, at least in her own estimation) – take some time to think about how they see you: I have had some of my older friends laugh about how badly some of their previous visitors hid the fact that they were “performing a good deed”. I think most old people spend as much time feeling sorry for younger people as vice versa, and while people who are sick and in pain appreciate a considerate question or two, not all old people are sick and in pain, and nobody likes that feeling when you realize somebody pities you (unless the person doing the pitying is also doing you huge favors, everyone likes getting huge favors, with very few exceptions)….

  9. whitewings says:

    I hesitated before posting this comment, but here goes.

    When our priest was forcible retired by an incoming Bishop whose views he did not agree with (and to any external observer, there were faults on both sides) it caused outrage in our quiet UK parish. The priest was elderly, in poor health, and because he was an Order priest, not a diocesan priest, no provision was made by the Diocese, they simply threw him back to his Order. We all said, “Not good enough”, and myself and one other parishioner got the builders in. The result? The priest lives three days a week in my ground floor bedroom, four days a week in the other parishioner’s home. He says house masses for us, keeps my elderly mother company when I am working late at night, and plays crazy Xbox football games with my son. He’s loved.

    Now, was he a very liberal priest who fell out with a more conservative bishop? Was he a very conservative priest who fell out with a more liberal bishop? Does it matter? No. He’s in the homes and hearts of people who love him still. Sometimes I do think we all place too much importance on some very unimportant things, too much of the time. (And having him around does actually have a very good effect on me. If I’m about to lose my temper, there’s a little hand tugging at my sleeve saying “Do you really want to have to ask him to hear your confession because you lost the plot about something this stupid…?”) :)

  10. gaudete says:

    Reminding me of the Pope’s recent speech in Trujillo, Peru, those remarks he seemingly added off the cuff:

    “Before ending: please be men and women of remembrance and go back to the roots. I think it is important that in our communities, presbyteries, the flame of memory be kept alive, encouraging dialogue between the youngest and the oldest. The oldest are full of remembrance and pass these memories onto us. We must go out to receive this, let us not abandon them. They [the elderly], over there, they that don’t speak much, they that feel a somewhat abandoned… Let us invite them to speak, especially the young must do this. Those who are in charge of forming the young; send them out to speak to the elderly priests, the elderly nuns, the elderly bishops – they say that nuns don’t get old because they are eternal – send the young out to enter into dialogue. The elderly need to regain the sparkle in their eyes and to see that in the Church, among the clergy, in the Episcopal Conference, in the Convent, there are young men and women who are moving the Body of Christ forwards. Let them listen to the young and let the young ask the elderly questions. That’s when the sparkle is regained in their own eyes. That’s when they will begin to dream. Make the elderly dream. Joel’s prophecy, 3:1. Make the elderly dream. If the young do this, I assure you that the elderly will then make the young prophesy.”

    Full text here:

  11. Charivari Rob says:

    One thing I forgot to say…

    Just because they’re resident there doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not well enough to go out for a little while.

    Find out if they can and if they’re interested. Take him to your parish, or out to lunch, or even just for coffee.

    The simplest outing can be a great treat. I recall when my godfather’s was in the middle (or further) of his long bout with dementia. He could no longer live alone and had many memory problems, but he was still mobile and amiable. One of his great joys was my parents making the trip every week or two – not just to visit, but to sign him out of the memory unit for an hour or two and take him down the road a mile to Dairy Queen or some such place for a hot dog and an ice cream cone.

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    Having been welcomed during foot pilgrimages in communities of retired priests in both Italy and France, I’d like to offer a few Caveats here from personal experience …

    The most important to understand is that priests in clerical nursing homes can suffer not infrequently from dementia of their senility, or possibly even from worse symptoms in their old age, so that it might be entirely inappropriate for even the most well-meaning of outsiders to come into any form of personal contact with them whatsoever, from lack of the necessary training or skills.

    Now, this can vary somewhat from home to home — but in one of these homes that I visited, a very small one, there were not only some elderly living there but also some who had gone quite mad.

    I will refrain from any detailed descriptions, for both discretion and respect for these men, but the truth is that more than is imagined is to be found in these nursing homes.

    Having said that, to visit such priests could be a worthwhile pursuit, and so it is a good charity in principle — but it is only in the unpredictability of a foot pilgrimage that I could visit these homes on those occasions, whereas in general one should quite simply not just turn up on doorsteps.

    Instead, enquire humbly of the person in charge, who will certainly be a priest (not necessarily resident in the home), who, being informed of your wishes and, more importantly, being aware of the particular needs and limitations and handicaps of his parishioners, will be able to guide you as to what is and what is not possible.

    If the retired priests are in need of protection from outsiders, this can and will include protection from you, me, anyone else.

    Having once been technically in the company of a large group of such priests, many of whom (as became apparent during the meal I took in their refectory) were in obvious need of psychological protection and of the “safe zone” of their retirement home environment (I was ordered quite strictly to remain isolated in my distant corner of the refectory and to make no attempt at any conversations nor to accept any attempts at conversation should any of the retired priests should approach me — they didn’t), I can in any case warn you that this is a matter that would require delicacy, humility, calm, utmost seriousness, absolute straightforwardness, given that simple good faith, good will, and good charity, whilst also being absolute essentials, do not suffice, except of course through simple Communion in Prayer, in mind, and in heart.

    Make your request — but heed the advice given in all positiveness, as even a refusal will be given for the benefit of the retirees in their need, as the case of their particulars may be.

  13. Pingback: SVNDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

Comments are closed.