As a chaplain working with an older adult population and those living with dementia in a long-term care facility, it has been an interesting situation navigating how to provide pastoral care in a time of social distancing. How does one remain 6 feet away from someone who might not be able to hear or see you unless you are right in their face, or refraining from embracing a resident with dementia who always greets you with a hug and cannot understand why you would need to keep your distance? Or avoid being physically present to someone, when your presence is the main means of care and communication because cognitively, they cannot process your words? How do we comfort those who mourn when we are used to moving in closer in times of loss? Do we move toward them, taking the risk of impacting their health or even our own, or do we go into isolation?
As social creatures we can only take so much distancing and isolation. Studies have shown the importance of physical touch and hugging in particular. Family therapist, Virginia Satir commented on the importance of physical touch by explaining, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”* In a setting where some of our residents might not receive that many hugs on a typical day or are only receiving physical contact when aides are helping them with their activities of daily living (i.e. bathing, brushing their hair, feeding, toileting), caring contact like a hug from a family member, or a chaplain holding their hand is paramount to their overall well being. In a time of social-distancing and sheltering in place, the lack of human contact may lead to feelings of isolation for those in long-term care facilities. According to the National Institute on Aging, persistent social isolation can increase the risk of depressive symptoms in older adults. Which can have a negative impact on the individual’s physical health, quality of life and even duration of life. So, what might our response be?
Jesus’ and the most vulnerable
As I interact with a community of older adults that are considered by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, I am reminded of Jesus’ stance towards people who were the most vulnerable in his society: those who were economically disenfranchised, widows, those who suffered from diseases that the culture deemed “unclean” and therefore needed to isolate. In all these interactions his stance was one of compassion not fear. Fear often arises when we feel our lives are at stake, or we lack knowledge about a particular situation, person, or group and feel threatened by the unknown. It is safe to say that COVID-19 has indeed marshalled a lot of fear around the world because it is novel and we have yet to fully understand its impact.
Compassion vs. Fear
So, if fear is often triggered by a threat of the unknown, perhaps compassion requires a level of knowledge, or more importantly wisdom. When the scriptures talk about Jesus being moved with compassion, it indicates to me that he had knowledge of the suffering the person was experiencing: not just intellectually but viscerally. He became acquainted with the pain to the point of desiring to address it either by healing them, being present with them in the pain, or avoiding exacerbating their suffering.
The knowledge of their suffering was birthed out of Jesus’ understanding of the interconnectedness of humanity and all of creation. The suffering he witnessed was not divorced from the actions or inaction of others, or other factors and elements in the overall system. For example, the men with leprosy were not just suffering because of the disease that wracked their body but because of the removal from their families and community (Luke 17:11-19). This removal only added to their suffering. And just like this multi-layered suffering was not disconnected from other factors in the environment, neither was the alleviation of that suffering. When Jesus did physically heal someone he did so often by using other elements in the environment : dirt, spit, physical touch, words, the faith of the person who was suffering or the faith of those assisting the person suffering, as in the case of the friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus (Mark 2: 1-12). Jesus used multiple energetic healing sources, some of which were outside of the medical technologies of his time. Jesus had an understanding of both the suffering and what was needed at the time to address the suffering. Therefore, compassion requires both an emotional intelligence to understand the interconnectivity of all creation and the suffering we all experience at times and the wisdom to know how to address it with what is at our disposal.
Meeting the spiritual, emotional, and
And so, as we think about ways to provide pastoral care to older adults in residential communities that are needing to refrain from having friends and family visit, and possibly experiencing anxiety because of this situation or feeling isolated at this time, may our response be one grounded in compassion. Let us be mindful of not adding to any suffering they may presently be experiencing. May we take inventory of the technologies at our disposal that will help us to combat, one of the biggest threats to their health and quality of life, social isolation.
While this writing particularly focuses on providing pastoral care to older adults, what other groups of people might be more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 due to lack of access to quality health care, experiencing homelessness or those being laid off of jobs as a precaution to spreading this virus. How might we be able to respond in compassionate ways to those most vulnerable in our global communities?
We invite you to share your suggestions and what you have been doing to stand in solidarity with the world in this time of global crisis and help to alleviate some of its suffering.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” –Mr. Rogers
The events of the last two years could be inserted into the
lyrics of We Didn’t Start the Fire as a continuation of the already
overwhelming list of historical events that have layered the reality of where
we find ourselves today. Not only do I already not like that song because I
find it impossible to remember the lyrics to sing along, I also do not have the
physical, emotional, or spiritual fortitude to listen to such a rapidly
syncopated retelling of the events.
And yet, at the end of the year, it is good practice to reflect on the year and raise our ebenezers to the testament of God’s goodness, even among the things we do not call good. The word ebenezer makes me think of the hymn Come Thou Fount. “Here I raise my ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come.” I always pictured someone raising a glass as though there would be a toast to God’s goodness. I watched too many movies and I guess Scrooge drinking was etched in my brain.
Ebenezer means stone of help and is found in 1 Samuel 7:12, set up as a stone of commemoration of how God helped the Israelites. When they walked by the ebenezer, they were to remember God’s goodness. 12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer,[b] saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
I imagine the remembrance of the Lord’s help was a combination of joy mixed with sorrow. Some Israelites never got to see the stone and the survivor’s memories of their loved ones no doubt held pain. Some may have wondered why the help seemed to stop or what the point of the help is if there isn’t continued rest in the place they found themselves. I wonder if after the last few years, we may also be raising our ebenezers in remembrance while being conflicted as to how to feel about it.
We are complicated beings and rarely
experience one pure emotion. The joy of birth is forged through pain. The loss
of a suffering loved one leaves our tears communicating both loss and relief
and often self judgement for feeling any of it. I find it fitting to raise my ebenezer
and acknowledge the competing emotions it brings after this stressful time of
pandemics, political conundrums, job loss, schooling, and, and, and – it has
been a doozie of time!
And still, I find myself worshiping during the Christmas season with a grounded sense of what hope is. John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We may feel the darkness and wonder if the light will ever shine again. Perhaps the ebenezer was bumped into a time or two after sunset or before sunrise, in carelessness. Perhaps we need to walk directly into, around, next to, and climb all over that ebenezer to remember the help we have. He has been our help and he will be our help again.
So, in this complicated time, may we see with fresh eyes the beauty of the gift of Emmanuel, God with us. Regardless of the stresses of the socioeconomic, religious, political, abusive, or any other system we may be encountering, he is with us. He is our help, and we can bring all our complicated feelings to him. And like the first Christmas, may you see the light shining in the darkness illuminating your ebenezer and celebrate the one who is still with us.