The effect of COVID-19 on faith at exended-care facilities

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Approximately one-quarter of the deaths in the United States from COVID-19 are attributed to individuals living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. While attending to these folks’ spiritual lives is of concern to administrators and caregivers, the harsh reality is that it is a lower priority than concerted efforts to keep these populations healthy.

As parts of the economy, and our churches, have begun the painstaking process of “opening up,” homes for the elderly and infirm are still basically on lockdown. Visitors to the facilities are not allowed and residents may only leave for doctor’s appointments and, if able, to walk the grounds or nearby parks.

Gone are the weekly Masses and other religious services. Gone are the Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, who regularly gave communion and visited with residents. Gone are the family, friends, and other volunteers who brought comfort, cheer, and the gift of their presence.

For many of the residents, social distance requirements have changed the tone of social gatherings and limited the number of those who can participate. Many simply stay in their rooms.

Tending to the spiritual needs of their charges is a challenge to those who work with vulnerable individuals. Many residents do not understand the restrictions and the sudden loss of routines and visitors that defeating the coronavirus requires. Still, a valiant effort is being made to keep people connected with others.

Richard Saville, the administrator of the Anchorage Pioneer Home, an assisted living facility with capacity for 168 individuals aged 65 and older, said when COVID-19 arrived, “Everything shut down. We immediately purchased four iPads so residents could, through Facetime or Skype, connect with family and friends, and connect with pastors and priests until things loosen up.”

However, Saville noted that doing so created a new set of challenges in accessing unfamiliar technology for both elders and the staff.

Joshua Shaver, the administrator at the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers Home in Palmer, shared Saville’s frustrations. “The problem with iPads is that nobody knows how to use them.” He noted one gentleman in his facility, which serves 75 individuals, has used his own computer to livestream religious services. He said those who are media savvy can connect online with a variety of religious services and spiritual content.

“The State of Alaska offers wifi service for greater access to the internet and we acquired iPads with network capability” at the start of the lockdown, Shaver added. “A lot of families are frustrated, but our main concern is keeping people out,” he said. “The scary thing is, any measures at the beginning were met with a lot of support, but as it drags on they’re asking, ‘when is all of this going to end?’”

As COVID-19 cases have increased in Alaska, with many of them occurring at Providence Transitional Care Center, long term care facilities are increasingly vigilant in keeping residents safe.

Robert Montague, Director of Recreation and Volunteer Services at the Anchorage Pioneer Home, said he misses the many volunteers who helped in the facility seven days a week. “You can’t replace the wonderful services of the community,” he said.

While the Anchorage Pioneer Home is looking forward to increasing ways to help people connect through technology, they are also hoping for a large screen TV with internet capability to offer recorded religious services.

A gospel choir sang regularly in the facility, but now, Montague said, “we can’t have more than nine people in one area.” He and another staff member routinely go hallway to hallway, guitar in hand, and give out ice cream cones as residents open their doors. “We just appear. If you put it on the calendar, too many people come.”

Across town at Providence Horizon House, Activity and Volunteer Coordinator Karen Strash-Purtner has been adding activities to the calendar. Without the assistance of 15 to 20 regular volunteers, she has to be creative. Her “brain fun” activities are “stimulating and socially engaging,” she said.

Adhering to social distancing requirements, she is offering walks on the grounds, an art class, and opportunities for people to talk about their issues. “I visit with the residents and take more time with them. They’re missing their loved ones.”

She lauded the efforts of the grounds and maintenance department who have planted gardens with flowers donated by Providence. “That is our well-being,” she said. “The flowers transform patios, flowers give things that help blood pressure come down,” she added.

Care and concern is not just for the residents of these facilities, but for the staff as well. At Horizon House, “quiet time in the chapel is open for all the residents, staff, everybody,” Strash-Purtner noted. Caregivers are dealing with their own families and the challenges of COVID-19. There is supportive outreach to them in the form of putting out lemons, tea, honey, and supplements to enhance their physical health like Airborne and Emergen-C, she added.

Assisting Strash-Purtner in her efforts to keep everyone at the facility—which serves 80 residents—emotionally and spiritually healthy, is Sister Angela Omeareghan. The Sister of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus is the Mission Integration Manager and a Chaplain.

Originally from Nigeria, this is Sister Omeareghan’s first assignment in Alaska. Her mission is to preserve the heritage of the founders of the Providence health care organization. Compassionate care is propagated, promoted and practiced with love, justice, mercy and care for creation—the organization’s core values.

Sister Omearaghan said, “The presence of COVID-19 has brought significant changes to the lives of our residents. I offer them my compassionate prayer and supportive presence.” The challenge is to provide spiritual care as well as awareness of the restrictions the facility must put in place to safeguard their health, she added, and said, “That is a big one at this time and it is not possible to explain to them.”

At this time, no churches are offering Mass or religious services in the facility. Residents come to her to talk. She provides one-to-one counseling and times for reflection and prayer in the chapel, where seating is arranged to facilitate social distancing.

On Memorial Day, they had a small gathering in the chapel. Prayers were said and special thanksgiving for the veterans was offered. “They come in, they pray, and they go back to their rooms,” she said.

Many are lonely, she said, and some are dying. At these difficult times, all facilities offer limited visits by clergy and family members, one at a time. “I spend time with them, to hear them and to let them know I am there to support them and others,” she added.

Spiritual care takes many dimensions at this unusual time in history. Sister Omearaghan also works with caregivers during this stressful time. “I encourage them to walk around the facility and I pray with them,” she said. “Residents are grieving that family and no one is around. Where are they? Not far away. They are quite emotional. I stay with them, pray with them,” she added.

Absent familiar religious rituals, Sister Omearaghan has given the residents creative ways to engage their spirituality. Offering what she called a “flower reflection,” she gathered folks together as much as restrictions allowed. “I put a flower on the center of a table and asked questions about that—what does it remind them of? Special occasions, people? They become emotional remembering loved ones or remembering when they had no money in their lives and would have gotten a dandelion,” she said.

She has presented each of the residents with a rose, encouraging them to touch it, to feel it, to smell it, to connect with the natural world and creation in whatever way they can, experiencing God’s creation in tactile and reflective ways.

Sister Omearaghan helps the residents connect with others by assisting them in making phone calls or meeting with others through FaceTime. She said that it is an opportunity for her to hear them and share about the issues raised in the conversations.

Amid challenges presented by the lockdown, Sister Omearaghan takes time for herself. “I walk, I pray, I take care of myself.” She said her strength is from the Lord. “I have my peace because I know God is in control. Like love, God is greater than COVID-19. He will deliver us.”

Little Sister of Jesus Alice Sullivan spent decades working with the Native peoples of Alaska in such places as Nome and Little Diomede island, as well as Anchorage. She is now a resident of the Anchorage Pioneer Home, where she is working on her second book, following her first offering, Our Story: History of the Little Sisters of Jesus in Alaska.

Sister Sullivan offered a unique perspective on the experiences of living in a residential care facility—especially with the added limitations of COVID-19. Asked about the availability of prayer groups or Bible study, even before the health restrictions, she said, “It’s very difficult to get people together. I am probably the most active. Most go to their room and shut the door. That’s it. The only time you see people is at mealtimes.” In the dining room, people are spread apart, only two per table. “Socialization has really gone down,” she said.

“Masses are streamed, but most people are of the age where they aren’t used to computers,” she said. She finds the virtual masses to be more like viewing a program, rather than participating. “It has been the strangest Easter season. Here you can’t gather, though there are big, empty spaces.”
Asked about the availability of spiritual reading, she quipped, “The library is full of mystery stories, by second rate authors.” She wasn’t sure if a state-owned facility would be allowed to offer overtly religious books.

Sister Sullivan resides at the Pioneer Home with three other Little Sisters, with whom she gathered before COVID-19 curtailed close contact with others. Attempting to celebrate one of the member’s birthdays was problematic, as no one could access the facility and meeting outside, while generally permissible with precautions, was impossible for one of the sisters who is in poor health.

Letha Flint, a regular volunteer from Holy Family Cathedral, was able to meet outside with the Little Sisters recently. “She stood away from us, and we visited. It was touching to see somebody else.”

Aside from recent restrictions, Sister Sullivan mourns the loss of involvement in parish activities. “Oh, we need to respect our elders, but there is no way we can integrate with community to share insights or go to church.”

The challenge to the broader faith community, as the COVID crisis recedes, is to ensure greater spiritual care of our brothers and sisters in extended-care facilities. “It’s important,” Sister Sullivan stated.


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