Elderly people shielding at home are at risk of becoming invisible as lockdown measures slowly begin to ease, writes Alex Drew. Developing meaningful support that helps them thrive and does so consistently is vital
As some parts of the community are enjoying a little more exercise and social contact (albeit at a 2-metre distance), there are many for whom nothing has changed, and for whom nothing will change, possibly for several months to come.
Those who are staying home because of underlying health conditions or because they are over 70 are locking down for the long term and with no near promise of an end.
How churches and community groups will support those who are shielding or staying home is an important question we should all be asking ourselves. Developing meaningful support that helps people thrive and does so consistently and for the long term is vital here.
Almost everyone is experiencing hardship of one kind or another during these days. It’s not easy to be home with children 24-7, people are struggling financially and mentally, some people are really overworked right now, and others are dealing with illness or grief.
But in their stoic efforts to shield themselves from the Coronavirus, for their own protection, for the protection of the NHS, and therefore for everyone else’s, there is a danger that people who have to remain at home will be shielded from view and will become invisible in our communities.
There are young families who have been advised to lock down long term because one of them has an underlying condition that makes them vulnerable. This has huge implications for their children’s education, social development and mental health, not to mention for the parents who will be managing all this!
People of all ages will be staying home for a long time yet. But we anticipate that older people will be the largest group affected by the need or the desire to shield.
Many older people are finding positive new ways to stay at home right now; embracing technology, enjoying their gardens, drinking tea and doing ‘dancercise’ outside with their neighbours, as well as generously supporting community initiatives financially and creatively.
But that’s not everyone’s experience. A lot of older people are living alone, not always connected with technology or with family. People who had already been living in relatively isolated ways prior to the pandemic, for whom going to the post office, doing their own shopping and going to church on Sundays was a life-giving routine that has now been crossed off the calendar.
Those living in care homes may not have the worry of food provision or total isolation, but the activities and the people which brought joy to their day before the pandemic are now off limits as they remain separated from fellow residents and their usual visitors.
Some older people are caring at home for their spouse, doing tremendous work in difficult circumstances behind closed doors and now without their usual support networks.
Others belong to church communities where they are usually an important part of the volunteer workforce – they’re used to leading busy lives; welcoming people at the door, serving coffee and cake, leading homegroups and other ministries, taking and counting the offering on Sundays, being part of the communion and prayer ministry team, and so on. Others have significant roles in helping their families - providing childcare and help for working children and grandchildren.
The loss of these roles can have a very negative impact on people’s sense of identity and self-worth, and a few I’ve spoken with are feeling a pretty useless right now.
Others still are simply missing their friends and family desperately.
I spoke with an 89-year-old lady on the phone a few days ago, who acknowledged that ‘normal’ may not return in her lifetime. While many of us might be daydreaming about our 2021 holidays, this is the stark reality for some. I hope she was wrong.
One way or another, a lot can happen in a few months. When the time does come to resume some form of normality, some of those currently staying indoors will be stepping out alone, when before, they did so arm in arm with their spouse; some will step out with new illnesses that have developed during this time, and many will step out with less confidence than they might have had before, fearing the prospect of getting on a bus or mixing with large groups of people again. Some will choose a kind of ongoing isolation because their new world is just too hard to bear.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that in the coming months church teams will begin to make plans to restart some types of gatherings. This will undoubtedly be complex and will require a lot of focus. As the church becomes busy centring its efforts around the church building and those who go there, those who will remain at home and therefore unseen will be at risk of becoming invisible once more.
This would be a tragedy – to lose a generation from our communities, not to the virus that sent them behind closed doors, but to a sense of detachment and fear that will keep them there if we don’t help them to belong and to thrive during this time and well beyond.
Now is the time for churches and communities to get to know those who are still staying at home, to listen to them and to make long term, sustainable plans. Plans which are not shaped by which restrictions are lifted for the majority, but plans shaped by the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of those who are locking down for the long term.
Image | Sabine van Erp | Pixabay
Alex Drew is the executive assistant at webnet (West of England Baptists) and Seventy-two. She's also the Ministry Team Leader for Seniors at Clevedon Baptist Church
She writes: 'There are a number of helpful websites and initiatives including Faith in Later Life and Linking Lives UK, which are great starting points for churches to explore what a response in their particular context might look like.
'I would heartily recommend that church teams nominate someone (or even a small group of people) now, who will help keep those who are hidden from view within the church’s the sights in the seasons ahead.'
How is your church making sure elderly people in your community are feeling connected and supported? We'd love to hear what's working for you. Please share your ideas and experiences here.