Rev. Dr. Richard Gentzler, Jr.

During stressful times—like the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic—it’s more important than ever for pastors and lay volunteers to nurture healthy relationships with older adults. Because COVID-19 is spread when individuals are in close proximity to one another, older adults’ risk of contracting the virus increases as they are around more people. While many churches have renewed in-sanctuary worship, older adults can be at a greater risk worshipping in person. Yet, older adults face the challenges of isolation and loneliness when they stay at home.

Likewise, nursing homes and other long-term care settings have closed their doors to outside visitors to protect the health and safety of their residents and staff. While the restrictions have been necessary—older adults with underlying health conditions are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus—clergy and lay volunteers have had to go months without visiting many of their older members.

Even though the pandemic has isolated many older adults, there are ways clergy and lay volunteers can maintain regular contact. Here are four ways to stay connected if face-to-face visits are impossible or limited:

Use Technology
Video chat platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime allow you to see and speak with older members in real time from anywhere. If that’s not an option for you or your older members, phone calls, emails, or writing letters are all viable alternatives. Maintaining contact with older members who are homebound and living alone should be a regular part of your pastoral or congregational care ministry.

Send Favorite Items
For older members living in nursing homes, care packages with favorite devotional booklets—like The Upper Room daily devotional—worship bulletins, church newsletters, snacks, and other fun items that have special meaning to older adults can help provide comfort, improve their mood, and reduce stress and anxiety. Sending care packages also lets older members know that you and your congregation are thinking about them. If you are planning to send care packages to residents in nursing homes, check with the nursing home first to find out if any food items are prohibited for health reasons.

Have a Dialogue Through Photos and Stories
Sending photos and stories related to the church liturgical year helps older members know and remember the seasons of the church year. For example, during November, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. You might want to send photos of fall foliage and pumpkins and share items such as Thanksgiving prayers, scripture, and poems. These can be a form of reminiscence therapy that elicits memories.

Get Updates from Family Members and Staff
In situations like COVID-19 when there are prolonged disruptions in church activities and programming, ask families or nursing home staff how you and your congregation can help strengthen the relationship between the church and older members. Ask: What specific ministry might be needed? What are ways our congregation can provide additional care during the COVID-19 crisis? Staying connected at all times is vital to the health and well-being of older adults.