For nearly a decade I’ve coordinated a dedicated and deeply faithful group of parishioners who visit the sick and homebound of our faith community. Whenever a new volunteer worries that she or he lacks the knowledge to be a minister to the homebound, I advise them to trust in the importance of their presence. When visitation ministers fear they don’t know how to console, I assure them that their mere presence conveys caring and love—words are secondary to presence.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, pastoral care ministers like me find ourselves in a sad predicament. The way that we best show caring—by accompanying others with our physical presence—is unsafe. The most up-to-date reports from public health professionals advise that visits to the sick and homebound temporarily cease in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. This concern is doubly important in parish work, considering most pastoral care visits focus on populations most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19: the sick and the elderly. Without the option of a visit, how then do we spiritually companion our elderly parishioners and loved ones?
In the weeks following the outbreak, I’ve witnessed and experienced some creative ministry. Here are some ideas for how you and your faith community might express your love and solidarity to the homebound:
Pivot to ways of communication that allow for you to express care at a distance. A brief phone call means a great deal. Begin the call by saying that you were thinking about the person and wanted to say hello. Another great way of showing caring is by sending a card through the mail. If you are unsure what to write, copy a favorite Scripture verse, draw a picture, or compose a prayer.
If you don’t know anyone who is sick, homebound, or living in a nursing home, reach out to your local parish or religious community. Pastoral care ministers will connect you with people who could use some personal attention. Many care facilities require now that the residents stay in their rooms to stop the spread of COVID-19. To that end, many elderly persons who already live lives of solitude find themselves without even the companionship of their friends in neighboring rooms. They would love to get a phone call or card from you.
An important part of care for the sick and homebound, especially when done in the name of a parish, is a spiritual component to the care. When you call someone on behalf of your parish community, don’t be afraid to ask if he or she would like to pray with you. It feels awkward at first, perhaps, but the simple question: “Would you like to say a prayer with me?” allows for them to say yes or no. Ask then if there is anything they’d like to pray for, any people they’d like God to bless. A great way to lift up those intentions together is to pray the Our Father or Hail Mary in unison.
Another idea is perhaps less spiritual in nature but aims to provide some cheer to those in nursing homes. When you go out for a little exercise, make a point to walk around care facilities. Keep your distance, of course. As you walk or run the campus, you’ll see that many of the residents are enjoying the activity outside their window. Give them a wave, say a prayer for them, and be on your way.
The COVID-19 pandemic has double-marginalized the sick and elderly in our communities. The nature of the virus itself is that it most gravely affects that particular group of persons. The other marginalization comes by way of further isolating persons who experience great solitude already. In other times, the sharing of our presence heals some of the sting of loneliness. Today, however, the calling is to creatively express our caring.
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