Chris Alburger is the first person to be named the LGBTQ Chaplain Resident at Hebrew SeniorLife. The position, funded through a generous grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, represents the first time a clinical pastoral education (CPE) program has educated a chaplain resident specifically for LGBT senior care.
The one-year residency program is part of HSL’s Clinical Pastoral Education program, which trains rabbis, rabbinical and seminary students, leaders of many faiths, and qualified health care professionals to become chaplains. It’s also part of Hebrew SeniorLife’s efforts to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for LGBTQ patients, residents, and staff.
I had the opportunity recently to talk with Chris about his experiences and the unique rewards and challenges of the position.
What brought you to this residency program?
I have my Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School. I was excited for the opportunity to work with LGBTQ elders and be part of institutional culture change that benefits LGBTQ patients and staff at Hebrew SeniorLife. I enjoy working with seniors and it’s a rare honor to work with the Holocaust survivors who are in our care.
What’s your typical day like?
In the morning, I have “classroom” time with other chaplain interns who are part of the Clinical Pastoral Education program. This summer, the unit is about the spiritual care of LGBT elders. In the afternoon, I visit patients and lead staff trainings. I provide pastoral care to long-term chronic care patients on one floor at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center (HRC) in Boston. On Fridays, you can find me singing and dancing with patients during our Shabbat services. In the fall, I’ll switch my clinical work to HRC-Dedham at NewBridge on the Charles.
I’ve also worked on a number of specific projects, including awareness activities for Black History, Women’s History, Pride, and LGBTQ Health Awareness Months. I collaborated with HRC-Boston’s Life Enhancement team to bring the first Pride concert to Hebrew SeniorLife – we featured an Elton John impersonator and our patients and staff loved it! I’m facilitating film screenings and discussions focusing on LGBTQ topics at Center Communities of Brookline, Jack Satter House, and the Simon C. Fireman Community. These types of activities are one part of Hebrew SeniorLife’s journey toward creating a welcoming and open community where people of all backgrounds and experiences are accepted and celebrated.
What have you learned so far?
The greatest reward is working with our patients, families, and staff. I love helping people feel safe, comfortable, and happy. Unfortunately, many LGBTQ elders go back into the closet when they go into long-term care. I’ve learned that visual cues in the environment are important to help patients feel more comfortable here and for staff to be more aware that we have LGBT patients – for example, rainbow flags and posters for Pride, or rainbow stickers on employee badges to show that they’re an ally.
I also think it’s important to make connections between diversity of all kinds. It’s intuitive for our staff to talk about accepting people for who they are, whatever their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or religion, when we talk about inclusion.
What does it mean to you to see a senior care organization focusing on LGBTQ issues? What impact do you see it having on patients, their families, and staff?
LGBTQ elders are often forgotten, but not here – Hebrew SeniorLife is truly leading the way. It’s incredibly moving to see people who’ve been closeted due to stigma being treated with sensitive care at the end of their lives.
Here are a few things that stick out in my mind:
- I love seeing patients, families, and staff looking at the diversity posters and talking about them. A gay patient told me he felt more comfortable being at Hebrew SeniorLife because of them.
- Patients and family appreciate it when staff acknowledge their partners.
- Many patients and staff have gay or transgender family members so they appreciate being able to talk about them openly or ask questions.
- I love seeing LGBTQ staff feeling more comfortable and respected by our institutional culture.
- It was great seeing patients, residents, and staff making rainbow potholders to hand out at the Boston Pride Parade and the huge parade turnout – we had more than 50 staff, residents, family, and friends march with Hebrew SeniorLife!