Guest columnist Sister Constance Veit, a Little Sister of the Poor, collects rosaries from elderly residents following prayers at the Jeanne Jugan Residence for senior care in Washington in 2019. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)
Several years ago, a summer heat wave of historic proportions settled over Europe, leading to the death of over 14,000 people in France alone. Many of the victims were elderly citizens who were left behind in major cities as their families and neighbors enjoyed their summer holidays far from the country’s urban areas.
The memory of this tragedy has been very present to me as we hunker down, close our doors and try our best to isolate our elderly residents from the coronavirus for as long as it takes to protect them from danger.
I am confident that our residents will receive the best care possible no matter how long this emergency lasts, but I worry about the thousands of seniors who live alone out in the community. Knowing what happened in France, I realize the elderly in our country could be inadvertently abandoned as quarantines are extended and our attention doubles down on self-preservation. Let’s not allow what happened in France to happen to our seniors!
Even as we practice prudent social distancing, we need to find ways to stay connected to the seniors in our families, parishes and neighborhoods. There are many ways we can reach out to them, even without having direct, face-to-face contact. Here are a few suggestions.
Many seniors are not skilled at social media, but they do use the telephone! Call at least once a day to make sure the elders in your life are well and have what they need. Just knowing someone cares about them will help sustain their spirits.
Make sure the seniors in your life have the food and medications they need. This may mean going grocery shopping for them, or helping them to order necessary items for home delivery. If you need to avoid direct contact, you could drop purchases off on their doorstep. You might even drop off some home-cooked meals, or invite your senior friends to make you something if cooking is not your forte!
If the seniors you know are interested in using social media to stay in contact with family and friends, offer to help them set it up.
For seniors who own a pet, offer your services as a dog walker.
Finally, don’t forget the spiritual needs of your senior friends and loved ones!
As I write this, many churches have locked their doors and many bishops are exempting parishioners from Sunday Mass attendance. But for many seniors, spirituality is a prime source of strength and solace, especially during trying times.
Let the parish staff know about seniors who are homebound or hospitalized and who may need pastoral care. For those who are Catholic, ask if it’s possible to bring them Holy Communion, or if a priest could visit them to give them the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
Many people still think of this sacrament as “extreme unction,” assuming that it is reserved for those on the threshold of death. But there is no need to wait this long. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the Anointing of the Sick “is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.”
We began Lent with the imposition of ashes and the reminder, “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return,” a phrase borrowed from the Catholic funeral liturgy. None of us could have predicted how quickly we would become so focused on the finiteness and fragility of human life – this is one of the spiritual lessons of the coronavirus.
During this difficult period, we are also learning lessons of patience, interdependence and human solidarity.
The elderly have learned these lessons through a lifetime of experience. Many of them lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean conflict; the youngest retirees came of age during the war in Vietnam. Personal sacrifice and mutual assistance were lessons they learned growing up in tough times.
Our elderly residents are witnessing to these values in the midst of our current trials as we do everything we can to protect them from the coronavirus. Together with them, we are praying for a quick end to the pandemic and for all those who are laboring to fight it.
Sister Constance Veit is the director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.