WASHINGTON — The Little Sisters of the Poor have cared for their elderly and infirm residents through two world wars, the Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression and numerous natural disasters.
Now, as the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads around the globe, the Little Sisters’ fourth vow of hospitality to the elderly poor is bringing them to the forefront in the fight to protect those most at risk from the virus.
“One of the most challenging pieces of this is that it’s a constantly changing situation,” Little Sister Constance Veit told the Register. “You can think that you kind of have things under control, and then it gets amped up, and what you might have arranged for one afternoon the next morning has to be changed again as the situation becomes more serious.”
Experts have warned that the elderly are at a greater risk than the young of dying from COVID-19. And some of the very first U.S. patients to test positive were residents at a long-term nursing facility in Kirkland, Washington. When their test results came back on Feb. 28, the U.S. had not yet confirmed a single death attributed to the virus.
Today, despite more stringent regulations and protocols governing daily life at nursing homes, the virus has claimed lives at the Kirkland home and other facilities, and the Little Sisters’ residences are no exception. Residents and Little Sisters in the U.S., as well as in France and Spain, have contracted the virus, and several residents have died, the order confirmed.
On March 26, an 86-year-old man at the Little Sisters’ Jeanne Jugan Residence in Newark, Delaware, died from the virus, and six more tested positive. The man had lived at the home for 12 years.
Protocols to protect the residents from COVID-19 had been instated weeks earlier, but residents in the home were already infected.
In his final moments, the man’s daughter was able to spend time with him, while his grandchildren came to the window of his room. New government regulations prohibiting visitors to facilities such as the Little Sisters’ homes make an exception for those visiting the dying.
“He really loved it here,” Mother Margaret Regina Halloran, superior for the residence in Newark told The Dialog, the newspaper for the Diocese of Wilmington.
Those who tested positive are being quarantined and cared for in the residence by a dedicated group of nurses and nursing assistants who care only for those residents.
“We are devastated at the loss of our dear resident and the positive test results of six others,” Mother Margaret said in a statement posted online. “In all our homes the residents truly become our family. We Little Sisters will continue to do all in our strength to meet this challenge, keep our beloved residents safe and comfortable and provide them with spiritual accompaniment, while also assuring the safety of our staff.”
Overburdened hospitals are encouraging coronavirus patients who do not need ventilator support to be cared for at home, said Sister Constance.
“We do have some sick residents in our homes staying at home in Spain and in France,” she added. “I think there have been a couple hospitalized, but for the most part they’re still at home, and it’s really basic supportive care that we can do. It’s the kind of care and assistance that our more infirm residents require all the time.
“It’s just that now we’re having to do it in quarantine conditions. But everything is relative, because you can’t stay 6 feet away from people when you have to feed them and lift them and bathe them.”
For those residents whose families cannot be with them while they die, the sisters continue to fill the place of family members. “We would stay with them even if no one else was allowed to stay,” Sister Constance said. “The vigil with the dying has always been the summit of our mission, and it is such a sacred moment.”
St. Jeanne’s Example
The Little Sisters began in France in 1839, when a woman named Jeanne Jugan carried a blind, paralyzed old woman home one night and placed her in her own bed. Soon, other women were brought to her for care — and other women came to help.
Members of the order now number 1,935 and run 167 homes for the elderly around the world, serving nearly 12,000 residents. To this day, the sisters carry on the tradition of caring for the elderly as if they are their own family members — and as if they are Christ himself. St. Jeanne Jugan was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Sister Constance is a member of the community at one of the Little Sisters’ 25 homes in the United States, the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington, D.C. Like at the other residences, the daily routine has been altered and continues to change as new precautionary measures are introduced.
“We do our utmost to follow all of the guidelines,” from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that govern U.S. nursing homes, she said.
Following the new rules to the letter relieves the Little Sisters of making some of the most difficult safety decisions, she explained.
Visitors are prohibited, for example, and though the residents may still leave their rooms, they can no longer congregate.
“Our residents usually eat together in the dining room in a family-style setting and sit at table together,” said Sister Constance. “We’re not doing that for the time being. Most of their group activities have been curtailed.”
Instead, the sisters have scrambled to connect the elderly in their care to family members via FaceTime, Zoom, Skype and phone calls. For those who still want to meet face-to-face, the sisters have set up a window where visitors and residents can visit safely.
Friars Helping Out
Neighboring Capuchins and Franciscans are eager to come over and provide entertainment for the residents from the front yard, Sister Constance reported.
“There are these young, energetic male religious — they want to be out serving people, and yet they’re being told they have to stay away from people,” she said.
“I told them, ‘Anything you consider entertainment. You can sing; you can juggle; you can do gymnastics — whatever seems fit for a talent show, come on the front lawn.’”
“We have several senior-living facilities in our area, so I told them, ‘Well, you can refine your act at our house and then take it on the road.’”
In addition to the government directives, the sisters also follow the Church’s guidance on life-and-death issues, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.”
Little Sister Mother General María del Monte Auxiliadora, who lives at the motherhouse in Brittany, France, has kept the congregation updated about the changing situations at the various houses throughout the world and encouraged the sisters to pray for each other.
“The sacrifices that the Lord is permitting right now should help us to grow in the spirit of collaboration among us, helping us let go of the daily ‘little nothings’ that sometimes weigh us down, but which assume their proper place when we look at the suffering of so many people around us: physical, moral, economic and family sufferings,” Mother General María wrote in an email to the congregation. “As always, we are spoiled and we must thank God for his predilection toward us and toward our homes.”
Faith and Fortitude
Mother María’s words of faith and fortitude echo the guidance of previous leaders of the order who have faced global and national crises. During World War I, then-Mother General Alexis de Ste. Therese urged members to offer their sufferings for one another.
“In France and England, as in Belgium and Italy, love of the poor made the Little Sisters forget their trials and fatigue,” Mother Alexis de Ste. Therese wrote in 1918. “In countries less affected by the war, everyone has devoted themselves to fervent prayer to obtain for those who are worse off the strength to fulfill their duties, often to the point of heroism.”
Back in Washington, Sister Constance is relieved that most residents at the Jeanne Jugan Residence appear to be taking the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying restrictions in stride.
Recently, a 101-year-old resident told the sisters that she doesn’t usually pay attention to the news but that she has been closely following the stories about the pandemic. She is not concerned for herself, but feels terrible for the sick and the caregivers and is praying for them.
“I can say that they’re not overly afraid of the situation,” Sister Constance said of the residents. “They feel safe in our home, and they feel well cared for. I think their concerns are more for what’s going on in the world around them.”
Like so many Catholics in the U.S. and in much of the world, the residents cannot attend Mass, and Holy Week observances will be different this year.
“Here in Washington, the rule is that you can have no more than 10 persons assembling anywhere,” Sister Constance said. “So for Mass everyday we have the nine sisters and our chaplain in the chapel, and the residents are watching it on TV. We do have the chapel open so that they can come in and pray by themselves whenever they want, and we’ve told them, ‘Just make sure you don’t sit right next to somebody.’ At any given point in the day there could be two or three people sitting in the chapel by themselves praying.”
During Holy Week, the residents will be watching the Paschal Triduum liturgy on television, and the sisters will bring them Holy Communion in their rooms, if protocol still allows it.
The change in routine has disrupted the spiritual and social life of the residents, but most have adjusted to life in the shadow of a public-health crisis.
One man who used to attend Mass every day, and sometimes even twice a day, was able to find a silver lining. Now that he cannot actually go to Mass, he told the sisters, he’s paying more attention to the Lenten liturgy, deepening his appreciation for the Paschal mystery.
Sister Constance further observed that the residents are part of the generation that lived through the Depression and World War II.
“I’m sure there were many occasions when it wasn’t safe to go out for Mass or to go out and do your daily normal routines because of bombings and whatever,” she said. “When I look at our old people, I think of that: the sacrifices they’ve gone through in their lives during wartime.”
But she expressed concern about the unmet emotional and spiritual needs of the elderly who may be alone and isolated in the broader community.
“Give them a telephone call every day or check in with them through a window to make sure that they’re okay,” she advised. “The elderly living in congregate situations are going to be okay through this, but it’s the people living alone who could be the most at risk.”
‘Trust in God’s Providence’
Sister Constance, for her part, trusts that the lives of the sisters and the residents are in God’s hands.
“Our congregation has had since the very beginning this very profound trust in God’s providence, that God is watching over us and caring for us,” she said, as she contemplated the uncertain timeline of the battle to contain the virus.
“No matter how bleak or dark things might seem, God has a plan in everything, and he’ll guide us through this and out of this to better times.”
“Whether that comes at Easter, or a couple of weeks later, or months later, I think our Christian faith enables us to always hold on to that hope that there will always be time, a return to joy and feasting, because that’s really what the Christian life is all about,” she concluded.
“We have to pass through this desert to get there.”
Register correspondent Mary Rose Short writes from California.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Information about donations can be found at the Little Sisters’ website; links are included to individual homes, which, due to the coronavirus, have specific needs, from hand sanitizer to other necessities.