19 August 2022

The accountant with a heart for holistic care

The Reverend Kirsty Brown has a heart for the elderly. Picture: Jenan Taylor.

Jenan Taylor

19 July 2022

For the Reverend Kirsty Brown, answering God’s call to service was the pathway to providing spiritual nourishment for the elderly.

Ms Brown’s memories of school holidays and time off are somewhat different to what many people may have of their youth.

There were the visits with her mother to an elderly lady in their neighbourhood in Glasgow, Scotland. And the voluntary work she did as a teenager in a geriatric facility.

But it was the family trips to see her maternal grandparents in Australia, that she loved most.

Then she would go with her grandfather, a retired minister, on his rounds to take devotions at various aged care facilities.

Those visits cast an impression of God’s work, and of connection to older people, that has never left her. 

She became a chartered accountant, like her father, while still living in Glasgow. Some years after finally moving to Australia, Ms Brown took on business management roles at Ivanhoe Grammar and then Trinity Grammar schools.

Though she loved the school environment, Ms Brown was always certain that she would someday move into pastoral ministry.  She just didn’t think it would start to happen when she took long service leave to study a graduate diploma in divinity in 2019.

But Ms Brown was increasingly drawn to connecting with older people and decided to resign from her job altogether to focus on aged care chaplaincy.

It was then that God revealed the road, she said.

Read more: The youth minister who became a passionate church planter

She had been considering the importance of holistic care of elderly people, an approach that ties together the spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing of people, when she realised that for her being a lay chaplain wasn’t going to be enough.

“I thought If I have to call in someone, who is potentially a stranger, to come and take communion for the residents when communion is meant to be relational, where’s the relationship?”

Ordination in that context hadn’t been on her mind, but she decided if she wanted to look after people holistically, and within relationship, then it was probably going to be important.

“God was making it pretty clear to me, that that was the way for me to go if I wanted to nurture the spirituality of those in in my care,” she said.

Ms Brown became a deacon in February 2021 and an ordained priest in November.

But one of the first things Ms Brown did, was find her grandfather’s old sermons.

As a younger person she wanted older people to feel at ease with her and thought she’d try to get a sense of how her grandfather had communicated with them and encouraged them in their faith.

Ms Brown said there was no doubt that his style was different to hers, but it was inspiring to see how God had used him, and she prayed that He would use her in the same way.

But poring over his sermons brought those long-ago days spent in his company and his tone rushing back.

“He was a bit meandering, but also encouraging,” she said. “He reassured people by challenging them, but not in a hellfire and brimstone kind of way. He was just a simple ‘God loves you, and I want to share that love of Christ with you,’ person.”

Since then, Ms Brown has amassed considerable time ministering in hospitals, aged care residences, and within the Melbourne diocese.

Now a St Barnabas Balwyn assistant curate, and chaplain at a large aged care provider, she said she’s found joy getting to know the residents no matter their spiritual or religious background, and in seeing how God continues to work in and through them.

Part of her remit as chaplain involves being able to listen deeply to what older people say in order to understand their views and wishes.

In doing so, she could reflect their needs to their families, or help them look back on life to feel that it has been purposeful.

That could be much harder if people had dementia, but at times some situations could still be resolved. At other times, however, they could only be resolved within Christ, she said.

“Then you’re able to keep them feeling that they have agency, that they’re the one making decisions for themselves. It is so important, because as soon as you lose agency, you lose purpose. And then you start to lose meaning,” Ms Brown said.

Crucially, she’s been able to focus on providing them with holistic care, something that Ms Brown believes is particularly relevant for those who have experienced trauma or who grapple with dementia.

She said often when people had experienced ordeals of varying degrees, whether related to child abuse or domestic violence, it tended to come out later in life, especially for those who had developed dementia.

“So, they won’t remember the happiness of the last few years, they’ll remember the trauma. The challenge is that they’re not going to remember the conversation we had yesterday about it. The trauma will keep revisiting, so how do we help with that, so that they’re not constantly re traumatised?”

Read more: Hospital chaplains shoulder grief, share joy in COVID ‘trenches’

Despite some situations appearing insurmountable, there were often times that it was clear that chaplaincy was making a difference.

“It might be that the lady who hasn’t been at church for eight years, who has dementia, starts singing a lively ‘Jesus loves me’, because she’s connecting with when she was at Sunday school,” she said.

“Or it could be that someone who you’ve been helping to work through the distress they’ve felt from having to leave their home of 50 or 60 years for a facility, finally says of that facility, ‘This feels like home.’. It means they’re moving through that grief and they’re looking forward. And so that’s a special, special thing.”

Ms Brown said that although being present and being able to listen helped chaplains to assist older people, having knowledge was vital, so she has furthered her understanding of dementia, especially, with certificate courses.  

For that reason, she believes formal knowledge is something she will keep building.

In the meantime, Ms Brown plans to teach other aged care workers how to help people approach the elderly with a more holistic perspective.

She admits that her becoming ordained was a change in direction that was so fast, that she’s still not certain her family have had time to process it.

Her father who had passed away in 2019 just as she was beginning her journey did however get to see her Archbishop’s licence, she said, and he was very proud.

Would her grandfather have guessed what her path would be?

“I was about 23 when he died,” Ms Brown said. “So, I was an accountant at that point and hadn’t moved to Australia. I don’t think he would be surprised. But I think he would be quite chuffed.”

This profile of the Reverend Kirsty Brown is part of a series on women in ministry, marking the December 2022 anniversary of 30 years since women were ordained in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. 

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