Maureen Pratt

If anyone needs evidence that a weekly, hourly visit from a friendly volunteer makes a big difference in others’ lives, the effect of the pandemic on homebound ministries to seniors is proof.

Before COVID-19, whether because of illness, effects of aging, weakness or other factors, seniors who had to stay at home often relied upon visits from fellow parishioners to bring companionship, Eucharist, news from the faith community or just kind conversation.

If they were present, family caregivers could take a brief break during the visits, go to another room for some quiet or run a quick errand or two without worrying. If family lived far away, they could be assured that someone local and friendly was checking in on their loved one.

But with the lockdowns, the visits, respite and peace of mind abruptly stopped and many suffered because of it.

Melissa Kelley, care team ministry program coordinator of Catholic Charities in Madison, Wisconsin, says, “During lockdown, the first thing we did was ask all 20 care teams to stop visiting completely and switch to phone calls and sending greeting cards.”

The move “helped a little bit,” Kelley says. But it was hard on volunteers, who “went through a lot of guilt” because they could not personally visit.

Also, although people who were confined could still have contact with volunteers, some did not benefit as greatly as they did with personal visits. For example, phone calls were difficult for the hearing impaired, and persons with dementia missed the familiarity of seeing as well as hearing someone.

Another challenge was that, during the pandemic, the number of people home alone increased.

“I got a phone call from one of the big hospitals’ geriatric social worker,” says Kelley. “She said that the elderly were being discharged and going back to an empty home.”

Kelley started a “phone pals” project, sending out an “open invitation to all our current volunteers” to add people to their “visiting” list and asking if others wanted to join. Many did.

Now, as parishes reopen, Kelley is transitioning the program from phone back to in-person visits.

It will be a challenge, says Kelley, “We’ve had so many deaths among our volunteers, who are older, and some of our care partners who are older.”

Kelley notes, “Most of the churches and volunteer ministries need to be rebuilt and reinvigorated,” and the need within the community “is going to be huge. We had a pandemic of loneliness before the pandemic.”

Fortunately, the care ministry Kelley coordinates has a clear foundation and mission to build on. Kelley says, “We call it a ‘ministry of sustaining presence.’ We’re not there to solve financial problems or family dynamics.”

Volunteers go through a criminal background check and must prove they have a valid driver’s license and insurance. They also attend training and regular team meetings.

“We train in active listening skills, the limits of care, that it’s hands-off, nonmedical visitation,” says Kelley. “Confidentiality is huge, handling an emergency and boundaries.”

Those who receive visits and their caregivers agree upon a care plan with the ministry. Regular assessments are made with the volunteers and the senior being visited.

“We want elders in the parish to have a say,” says Kelley, “feel like their opinions are heard.”

Recently, the Catholic Health Association of the United States collaborated with Catholic Charities USA and the Community of Sant’Egidio on several webinars on topics related to aging, faith and our response (available free of charge online here).

As discussion with and about the seniors among us increases, and needs emerge, may a collective ministry of sustaining presence grow too!

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Pratt’s website is www.maureenpratt.com.