Extending Comfort and Joy to the Elderly This Christmas

Care facilities connect residents with loved ones and offer cheer during season marked by pandemic restrictions.

Resident Betsy Balmes of the Mullen Home in Denver and Sister Carolyn Martin, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who is a nurse, administrator and vocations outreach manager at the Mullen Home, work together on the Christmas display in the first floor coffee shop.
Resident Betsy Balmes of the Mullen Home in Denver and Sister Carolyn Martin, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who is a nurse, administrator and vocations outreach manager at the Mullen Home, work together on the Christmas display in the first floor coffee shop. (photo: Courtesy of the Little Sisters of the Poor)

Residents of Mullen Home for the Aged normally don’t put up Christmas decorations during the First Week of Advent, but this year they did. 

“We don’t have volunteers, so we’re doing it little by little with our residents,” said Sister Carolyn Martin, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a nurse, administrator and vocations outreach manager at the Little Sisters’ full-service facility for Denver’s elderly poor. COVID-19 restrictions currently prevent volunteers from serving at the home.

“It’s already looking Christmassy, and it’s very uplifting,” said Sister Carolyn. 

Klemond-Elderly Little Sisters of the Poor Mullen Home
Clockwise from top left: It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the Mullen Home. Resident Margaret Gilreath and Sister Caroline John share a moment of mirth during Christmas preparations in the second floor living room. Apartment resident Bill Virden helps Sister Mary William hang a wreath in the first floor hallway. Resident Marjorie Gibson and Sister Mary Augustine unwrap figurines for an international Nativity set display on the first floor. Resident Ceci Varoz delights in showing Sister Gloria Thomas the welcoming Christmas display at the entrance to the first floor living area.(Photo: Courtesy of the Little Sisters of the Poor)

Christmas celebrations during the pandemic will be different for everyone, but especially for nursing and residential-care residents who, for their protection from coronavirus, may not be able to visit with their families in person or socialize as much with each other.

As residents feel the effects of months of lockdown restrictions, staff members are working to help them connect with loved ones this season through socially distanced and virtual visits. Also planned are more individualized holiday activities and opportunities for spiritual care and growth. 

Residents often feel more anxiety during the holidays, but it’s even more taxing for them this year because they most want to see their families in person and can’t, said Capuchin Brother Anthony Monahan, who has been ministering to the residents at Mullen Home for nine years.

Brother Anthony, who said he considers the residents like family, said that, during his talks and one-on-one meetings, he tries to help residents find the joy of the moment while giving them opportunities to share their challenges and memories. 

“Everybody has a different taste for this season, with food and gifts and celebrations,” said Brother Anthony, who belongs to a Denver Franciscan community, “so we definitely inspire them to do more of that, to keep them positive, to keep them afloat, and just to enjoy what they have for the moment, even though their loved ones can’t be there in person.”

During the holidays residents want more contact with their families, but they understand the sacrifice they’re making during the pandemic, said Sister Carolyn, who added, “They want to know that people haven’t forgotten them and care about them.” 

Residents also want to feel they’re being heard and that they’re special, said Lauren Flores, life-enrichment director for skilled nursing at Mt. San Antonio Gardens in Pomona, California.

“Right now, what’s most important is that we maintain their connections with their family and make it as meaningful and positive an experience as possible while still keeping them safe,” she said of the community’s approximately 200 residents. 

Following Los Angeles County’s and other civic authorities’ regulations, residents currently can only have closed window visits with their families, though they were able to visit outdoors this fall. 

While in-person visits have been limited, Mt. San Antonio Gardens has trained staff to facilitate virtual visits on Zoom and FaceTime and has acquired more tablets, Flores said. The community’s five iPads were booked solid for Zoom calls on Thanksgiving Day, she said. 

Winifred Dutke, 94, will visit with her family at her son’s house on Christmas as she usually does because as an assisted living resident at Westwood Ridge in West St. Paul, Minnesota, she is allowed to leave the facility if she is careful about social distancing. 

“You’re expected to behave yourself,” she said about the facility’s rules. “By that I mean you don’t get too close to” those you’re visiting. 

One of the biggest differences in Christmas this year, Dutke said, is that she hasn’t been able to shop herself.

Residents at Cerenity Senior Care Marian of St. Paul also had outside visits this summer but now can visit indoors with two family members or friends designated as essential caregivers, said Sharyl Kaase, the marketing director. 

At the four senior residential care homes operated by Vermont Catholic Charities throughout the Green Mountain State, residents are allowed offsite visits, but when they return they must quarantine and be tested periodically for 14 days, said Mary Beth Pinard, Catholic Charities executive director in the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont. They had outdoor visits during summer and fall, following state guidelines, she said.

Due to a COVID case surge in the Denver area, both indoor and outdoor visits are on hold at Mullen Home, Sister Carolyn said. The 37 nursing care and 13 independent living residents also can’t have offsite visits. “We’re just trying to keep them home and keep them safe,” she said. 

While staff manage Zoom calls for residents, their families sometimes aren’t set up for virtual visits, she said. “Some of their children haven’t really been involved with technology.”  

Along with visits, residents’ spiritual care is important, Sister Carolyn said. Mullen Home offered an Advent recollection day on closed-circuit TV with a talk, reflection, confessions and one-on-one time with a priest, she said.

Residents can attend Mass daily and on Sundays, both in-person and through the center’s TV channel, said Kaase, adding that Eucharistic adoration and the Rosary are also televised.

Henrietta Gilreath-Miller of Thornton, Colorado, regrets that during the pandemic she hasn’t been able to visit her 88-year-old mother, Margaret Gilreath, at Mullen Home to soak her feet or decorate her room for the holidays. 

She stays in touch through Zoom calls because the telephone is more difficult for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. 

Gilreath-Miller hoped to share Christmas dinner with her mother at the facility, but COVID restrictions preclude that, so she donated food to the home for the residents’ meal. 

“It’s really hard because you haven’t been able to see her in person,” she said. “You haven’t been able to hug her.” 

In California, where COVID-19 restrictions on churches have been tighter, Mt. San Antonio Gardens has been working with a Catholic deacon to offer residents Holy Communion, Flores said. 

Like spiritual opportunities, Christmas activities at the facilities will be mostly individualized in residents’ rooms. While popular events such as an eggnog social and New Year’s Eve party are on hold at Mt. San Antonio Gardens this year, singers and musicians are scheduled to perform carols outside residents’ windows on Christmas Day, Flores said.

Cerenity Senior Care Marian also plans to have carolers serenade residents from its courtyard during the season, Kaase said. 

Residents will attend a Christmas celebration in smaller groups rather than all together, she said. “It’s a big part of Christmas, and so I think that that’s going to be pretty meaningful for them,” Kaase said. “It’s going to probably feel like a little bit of fresh air.”

At times during the pandemic the Vermont homes have had to suspend communal dining and activities, but they’ve organized creative activities, including hallway bingo and movies and brain games, Pinard said. A Christmas party with families won’t be possible, but other holiday activities are planned, she added.

At Mullen Home, staff wearing holiday costumes will bring treats for individual visits during the holidays, Sister Carolyn said. 

“We always have a lot of one-on-one contact and a lot of daily contact with residents, but it’s really a delight how this [the pandemic] brought us closer to one another and to them and to our staff who are helping us.”

The home also will run TV holiday concerts honoring individual residents, Sister Carolyn said.

They also socialize with each other while social distancing, she said. “Friendships have formed and have become even more meaningful with the pandemic and all the sacrifices.” 

A socially distanced Christmas dinner is planned for Westwood Ridge residents, said Dutke, though she said she has been staying in her apartment to avoid the virus and instead keeps in touch with friends in her building though phone calls. 

“You meet somebody in the hall, you don’t get close to them,” she said. “You keep your distance.” 

Flores said many residents have tried to stay in contact with each other, sometimes through Zoom calls room to room. 

Residents have hope and support each other, Kaase said. “Everybody maybe has a down day at a different time, on a different day, so you’ve got those people who can help support the other one.”

Families can support residents with calls and by sending cards, letters and plants or flowers, she said. “If you’re sitting in your room and you’ve got this bright red poinsettia, it can brighten your spirits.”

Delivering a favorite meal or snack, music CD or family pictures also means a lot, Flores said. 

And a card, calendar or note from a resident’s parish is also significant, especially for residents whose homes are unable to have Mass because of COVID restrictions, Sister Carolyn said. 

“Faith is so meaningful as they age,” she said. “They have more time to reflect on what matters most to them, in terms of faith and God and their own spiritual development.” 

Volunteers who can’t enter facilities still can assist residents by making or doing little things for them outside the home, such as sending cards, letters or prayer shawls, Kaase said. 

Even with the support residents receive, she asked if the effects of pandemic restrictions, including less human touch, family contact and socialization, might outweigh the benefits of those restrictions, as important as they’ve been for safety.

“I wonder if we will look back at this time — obviously hindsight is 20/20 — and wonder if we served our seniors in the best way,” Kaase said. “You can’t put a price on what a hug does for somebody.”

Despite the challenges, residents have faced ups and downs before and are coping, Sister Carolyn said.

“I don’t see them bored or visibly lonely. I think their lives are as rich and full as can possibly be during this pandemic time,” she said. “It will be much better later when the quarantine lifts. They are resilient. They are amazing. They are such good examples; they inspire us every day.”