John and Betty have been married for nearly 60 years. They share the same address but haven’t seen each other in six weeks. Manny needs a wheelchair to get around. He used to visit his friends each day, but today he’ll spend the day in his room. Someone will bring his meals to him, but his contact with other people will be very limited. Anna is confined to her bed. She has moments where she is lucid, but those moments seem to be fewer and fewer as each day merges into the next with virtually no human interaction.
I’m describing life in the retirement community in which I work. The people I’ve described are actual people (names changed). I’ve been able to talk to people from other retirement communities, and they live with similar restrictions to the ones our residents have to follow during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Awhile ago, John and Betty sold their house and moved onto one of our two campuses. But John has his own apartment while Betty spends her days in a different wing that gives her the type of care she needs. If things were different, John could visit his wife and maybe even bring her to his apartment for the afternoon. But during this season of uncertainty, they have no contact other than phone calls. Manny may spend a brief amount of time each day in the common room but, like John and Betty, his contact with his family has been by phone. He’s not had a visit since this all started, though his kids bring food and an occasional card or gift to cheer him up. Anna is slowly fading. She is well-cared for by the nursing staff, but those are her only contacts.
Different regions are heading toward some level of re-opening and we will soon have some semblance of the way life used to be. And we might think life will return to a level of normalcy for these kinds of people too. But not so fast! Given the fact that medical authorities believe people in that age bracket are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and given the spotlight on those who run retirement communities and nursing homes, it is more likely that many if not most of the restrictions will stay in place for several months.
Experts have written about the negative psychological impact of the “stay at home” lifestyle so many of us have lived with. Many of those who have stayed at home have their families at home with them. And many who have been home-bound have been in contact with friends and family through email, Facebook, FaceTime and other forms of technology. Despite those things, people are feeling depressed and lonely. But that’s even more true for a significant number of the people I’m writing about. The technology we take for granted as a normal part of life is foreign to many older folks, which means that they are cut off from some contact opportunities we enjoy.
I’m writing this because when churches open again and people can begin meeting, pastors need to be sure not to forget this group of elderly people. Many older people who have been at home will be not feel safe going out in public. So the ministry I hope you’ve had to them during this pandemic needs to continue. If communities and nursing homes open up to visitors again, they need a visit from someone in the church. If your older folks don’t come streaming back to church, they still need your care.
The focus of this blog is primarily, but not only, toward younger pastors. If you are a younger pastor, I wonder how you feel about ministering to people who are elderly.1 Some guys love this age group, and some are intimidated by their (sometimes) curmudgeonly behavior. But they are people who need companionship and comfort. And let’s not forget that many of your seniors have often given several decades of their lives to serving the church you now pastor.
Remember that whatever will be our new normal will probably differ greatly from this age group’s coming new normal. Since vulnerability increases with age, it is likely that people in this age bracket will take greater precautions, expect the church to accommodate their precautions, and – as is true with those who are in retirement communities and nursing homes – will still be limited socially in ways that will prolong their feelings of loneliness. So please don’t forget them!
- In 1960 the average adult died in his or her late 60’s. Today the average adult lives to be close to 80. I seriously think we need to invent a new category for people in the 60ish-80ish range because many are too vibrant to be regarded as elderly. As someone who hits 67 this summer, I join many of my peers in thinking I’m still pretty much middle age. Self-deception? Maybe. But don’t call me a Senior Citizen or I’ll take you out of my will. It may be that churches who initially exclude people over 65 from coming to church should bump that up to 70. But check with your medical professionals, not a blogger. ↩