Fostering Needed Connections With Lonely, Isolated Elders
After COVID-19 lockdowns, in-person visits and other contact bring life and joy to the elderly.
After Beth Easter and her husband, Dr. Stratton Easter, moved to MorningStar Assisted Living of Pasadena, California, last spring, they spent a lot of time in their new apartment to avoid getting COVID-19. “We weren’t supposed to leave, and most people didn’t want to,” said Beth, 93.
It was lonely at times, but the couple stayed busy, she said. “We’ve come through it very easily, I would say, and I know there are many people who have not.”
As the pandemic recedes and, with it, some COVID restrictions, the Easters look forward to returning to Mass at their parish, Holy Family Church in South Pasadena. For now, they’re grateful for a weekly Communion service at their facility, Beth said.
While many nursing-home residents and homebound Catholics now feel more comfortable about in-person visits with family and friends, for some, the isolation and loneliness they felt during the pandemic have left their mark. To help alleviate those feelings, those who work with elders offered suggestions for family, friends and volunteers for making them feel loved and cared for.
The Little Sisters of the Poor have seen isolation’s effects on residents, even among those who haven’t had COVID-19, said Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the order’s 23 U.S. communities who is based at the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve seen a general decline in all our residents,” she said. “They’re not as active as they used to be, and people who were pretty sharp cognitively before, we’ve just seen some decline. Some of that comes with normal aging, but we feel that some of it has definitely come from the periods of isolation.”
The sisters and staff continue to offer residents spiritual and emotional support through personalized attention, but they can’t reverse the toll of the isolation, Sister Constance said.
Depression brought on by isolation in some cases was more severe than COVID itself, said Sister Samuela Komperda, administrator of St. Francis Nursing Home in San Antonio, Texas, which has 90 residents. Her Krakow, Poland-based community, the Seraphic Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrow, runs the nursing home. “It’s failure to thrive for several of them,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
When St. Francis paused in-person visits during 2020, residents still could have contact with loved ones through outdoor visits, phone or Zoom, which now facilitates long-distance visits,” Sister Samuela said.
But families that weren’t able to visit during the lockdown noticed that their loved ones changed, especially those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, she said.
Homebound Catholics also suffered from isolation during the pandemic, but it’s getting better, said Yvonne von Brauchitsch, homebound ministry coordinator at St. Joseph Marello Catholic Church in Granite Bay, California.
Eucharistic ministers to the homebound didn’t see some elderly parishioners during the pandemic, even though Holy Family Church in South Pasadena worked to stay in contact with the homebound, said Mary Schimmoller, pastoral care director. In some cases, homebound visits haven’t resumed, while other parishioners haven’t returned to Mass, she said.
“There’s still a lot of fear and maybe a sense of, ‘Oh, I will come back eventually,’ but it’s just not happening yet,” Schimmoller said.
Through the parish’s ministry, which focuses on bringing the Eucharist to homebound and sick parishioners, ministers get to know them and become like family members, she said.
“It’s definitely a ministry of accompaniment, and, of course, you’re bringing the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, and you’re bringing the Body of Christ in yourself as a member of the Body of Christ,” Schimmoller said. “It’s just a profoundly moving ministry.”
The relationship between homebound members and their parish goes both ways, she said. “They’re grateful to have the Church taken to them, but they’re still important members of the Body of Christ, too,” Schimmoller said. “It’s a blessing for our parish that they continue to be part of the parish — to be whole with all of us together.”
Homebound parishioners ask about the pastor and read parish bulletins that Brauchitsch brings each week. “It’s feedback from the parish,” she said. “They’re very aware that I’m from St. Joseph Marello parish.”
For the homebound and long-term-care residents, it’s important to help them rediscover the meaning of their baptism, the mystery of God’s love and mercy and eternity, according to a document called “Old Age: Our Future” released by the Pontifical Academy for Life, which states that the Church must “… ask the elderly who are part of our communities to be actors in the New Evangelization to transmit the Gospel themselves. They are called to be missionaries, like every other age of life.”
Making nursing-home residents and the homebound feel connected by sending them mail or dropping by to see them will bring something positive to their day and decrease boredom, said Amy Craver, managing editor of Canton, Ohio-based Communication Resources Inc., whose HomeTouch outreach ministry provides weekly scriptural devotions and activities for Christian churches to distribute to their homebound members.
“There’s a fairly long laundry list of benefits of somebody receiving mail, feeling that connection, ‘somebody cares about me; I actually have something to do,’” she said.
It’s important for families to maintain regular contact with elderly loved ones, however they can, said Sister Constance, adding that nursing-home administrators can recommend the best ways to visit, “even brief phone calls and, where possible, video chats, if in-person visiting is not possible.”
In-person visits are best, Sister Samuela underscored, and though some residents may not remember who visited, most know that someone came.
Not being able to leave St. Francis during the lockdown was difficult for resident Jack Petry, 72. But this Christmas his daughters and friends were there to visit. “It’s much better to be in-person with somebody because you can see their expression and their feelings,” said Petry, who worked as a social worker at the home before moving in as a resident two years ago.
The homebound also do best with in-person visits, Schimmoller said. “You don’t have to have anything particularly brilliant to say,” she said. “Just go and listen.”
In a July 26, 2020, address, Pope Francis urged young people to stay close to their grandparents and show tenderness, especially to those most alone. “Use the imagination of love; make phone calls, video calls; send messages; listen to them,” the Holy Father said, adding, “Send them a hug.”
Along with family, volunteers bring the elderly life and joy, Sister Constance said. While some volunteer programs haven’t yet restarted after COVID, she suggested those wanting to serve approach a nursing home’s activities staff to see if they can help.
Asking an elderly person what they need help with, such as letter writing, is one way to connect with them, said Frances Lachowicz, executive director of Mercy Circle, which offers nursing care as well as assisted and independent living and memory care, in Chicago.
Volunteers should consider how they can use their talents to help, she said. One way is assisting with transporting residents.
If visiting isn’t possible, Lachowicz suggested writing a letter — something the elderly are familiar with. “We’ve lost that art form,” she said. “Somebody would like to know you’re thinking of them. Getting a card or note means a lot.”
Cards and letters can brighten homebound Catholics’ lives, but sometimes what they want most is someone to listen, Schimmoller said.
“We all want to know that we continue to matter, and that’s the important thing,” she said. “Even if it’s a simple, ‘Hey, this is [name]. I’m just calling to see how you’re doing today. What’s going on?’ and let them share.”