The first time I stepped back into our Norris Square Senior Community Center since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was quite eerie. The doors were closed shut with signs stating only staff were permitted inside. The dining room, usually full of laughter and friends enjoying good food, was empty. The long dining room tables, which once served as a central gathering spot for seniors, now served as a staging area for frozen meals going out for delivery to seniors facing food insecurity.
Prior to COVID-19, the center would be bustling with over 130 older adults on any given day. There was an energy when you walked through the door and a smiling community of seniors always willing to greet you with joyful hearts. This visit was different and it made my heart ache for all of our seniors.
Across the country, nursing homes have imposed strict visitation policies for families and loved ones. In our senior housing buildings, we have had to close our community rooms. Home visits from our social work staff have been halted. Places like Norris Square, which are meant to provide critical modes of support to older adults including socialization, nutrition assistance and physical activity have been forced to suspend or alter these services due to the national public health crisis.
Humans are social creatures. Our connection to one another enables us to survive and thrive. Recently, Pope Francis called on us all to reach out to the elderly. He challenged us “… to make a concrete gesture of tenderness toward the elderly, especially the loneliest, in their homes and residences, those who have not seen their loved ones for many months.”
Last April we received a call from a 73-year-old woman looking for assistance with food. She was down to a handful of TV dinners along with a few cans of soup and had no one to help her with food shopping. She had recently lost her brother and her sister was in the hospital battling COVID-19. Feeling totally alone she reached out, searching for hope.
When Catholic Housing and Community Services staff told her we could deliver groceries that very same day, she broke down in tears over the phone.
Throughout the past six months, we have all felt the profound effects of isolation, quarantine and being socially distant. We have all lamented our losses — graduations, school plays, birthday parties, and more. There is no doubt that the emotional toll has been significant on all of us.
As so many seniors struggle to feel connected under normal circumstances, I know the heightened feelings of isolation and loneliness faced by our older adults during this time is especially difficult.
According to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, there are approximately 291,000 seniors in Philadelphia. An astounding 134,000 of them live in poverty. At least 75% of older adults in Philadelphia have at least one chronic illness and almost 40% live alone. These numbers are overwhelming and the added burden of COVID-19 has significantly altered the way this at-risk population lives.
Each October, the Catholic Church in the United States observes Respect Life Month, an effort that asks us to reflect more deeply on the dignity of every human life. From the beginning of life to its end, and at every stage in between, as Catholics we are called daily to cherish, defend and protect those who are most vulnerable — a responsibility that is even more critical than seven months ago.
During this month-long observance, let us take a broad view of our responsibility to care for life and look to our elderly and their extremely difficult struggle. Many are finding themselves alone for the first time due to separation from family and loved ones, lack of transportation, closing of community resources, and more.
As we continue to weather COVID-19, what will your concrete gesture of tenderness be? How will you use this opportunity and time of reflection to elevate the precious gift of human life of our older adults and elderly?
Heather Huot, MSW, LSW, is the director of Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS) of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Follow CHCS on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/chcsphilly/ and Twitter at https://twitter.com/CHCSPhila.
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