Tending to those most vulnerable and alone

Seniors isolated in a house or care facility during this crisis need new expressions of contact and care.

Jozef Gouwy, 93, looks at a robot in Ostend, Belgium, that allows seniors in a care facility to communicate with loved ones.

As the coronavirus scrambles the normal ties of community, the best response has been a focus on those most vulnerable. In California, homeless people are a high priority. For low-income Americans, Medicaid is easing the flow of money. Almost everywhere, school closings are safeguarding children from exposure. Yet the greatest concern is for older people, especially those living alone or in care facilities.

Perhaps the most radical show of concern for seniors is Britain’s plan to ask people over the age of 70 to stay at home for four months. “No bingo, no pubs ... BUT family visits and neighbours etc.,” tweeted the United Kingdom health secretary, Matt Hancock. More typical is Florida’s ban on certain people from visiting nursing homes and other elder-care centers.

Such social distancing has triggered a wave of empathy to socially engage older people and lift their morale. The obvious tools are digital videoing, such as with FaceTime, Duo, or Skype, all a step up from phone calls. Yet sending handwritten letters – with photos – might be better for many seniors and more memorable. Just as compassionate are offers to deliver essentials to the door, such as personal care items, or favorite foods and flowers. In many places, people are organizing to aid seniors through hashtags like #HowCanIHelp.

During this crisis, isolation may be the greatest concern of older people. Only 47% of U.S. adults over the age of 60 worry about dying from the coronavirus, according to The Harris Poll, compared with 57% of millennials.

One marker of a civilization is the humility and sacrifice expressed during times of mass illness in support of older generations. In the United States, where more than a quarter of those 60 and older live alone, the challenge is greater than in most other countries. Family and friends must find creative ways to prevent mental isolation of loved ones. They need to weave new threads of contact into a senior’s social fabric.

Especially hard for many seniors is not being able to attend religious gatherings. Yet clergy and the faithful are inventing ways to meet the spiritual desires of the oldest people who have long sat in the pews. For most religions, giving to those most vulnerable is a divine calling, a reflection of God’s infinite love.

The virus crisis is forcing people to readjust their physical ties to one another, especially with at-risk seniors. Yet the bonds of affection in a community or a family are still there. They just need new and careful forms of expression, the kind that both protect and prop up the weakest during a pandemic.

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