As we begin the third year of the COVID pandemic, we are well aware that the coronavirus has wreaked havoc throughout the world. According to a recent report in The New York Times, more than 950,000 deaths have been linked to the pandemic in the United Sates, and, as of this article’s writing, about 2,600 cases continue to be reported every day. Some of our churches have experienced the death of many members — both young and old, but mostly old — to the coronavirus. Lives have been changed and many older adults have had to weigh feeling lonely versus feeling safe.
As a result of ongoing concerns related to the pandemic, many older adults are socially isolated and feel lonely, which leaves them vulnerable to health-related problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease.
The effects of social isolation during the pandemic impact all ages. Some studies show teens have fared worse than other groups. But older adults were already vulnerable to loneliness. And for many older adults, the pandemic was the first time they felt a deep, sustained loneliness.
Before COVID-19, about one-quarter of Americans over age 65 were socially isolated and more than 40 percent of people over age 60 reported feeling lonely. The pandemic’s arrival left elderly people living alone feeling even more isolated than before. Many people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities were cut off from family and friends, as facilities closed their doors to visitors in an attempt to protect residents.
In a recent conversation with several older adults at my church, one person shared what many of us feel. She said, “I personally miss the fellowship time that we shared together. I miss the potluck suppers and singing during worship without being afraid. I miss the hugs and handshakes and smiles that are now hidden behind the masks. I miss going out to eat with no thought of infection.” Everyone around us nodded in agreement.
Then she went on, “The pandemic has really changed my life. It has ruined the sense of fellowship with one another. Even though I could worship at home through Facebook, I feel compelled to attend worship services on Sunday mornings because our attendance has gone way down. It has been a difficult two years to try and stay connected and keep my spirits up.”
We live at a time when we can instantly communicate with distant friends and family members using a few mouse clicks or taps on a touchscreen. Despite advances in communications technology and the increasing connectedness it brings, as a society and a church, we are lonelier than we have ever been.
Loneliness is subjective and doesn’t necessarily mean you’re alone. It’s possible to feel lonely even in a room full of people. For some older adults worshiping on Sunday mornings in church can be a lonely experience. This can be especially true when a spouse or partner dies and the widow or widower attends church without his or her loving companion.
While aging often presents physical challenges, mental health can also suffer. Social isolation is rampant among older adults who lose mobility, lack transportation options, or live alone or away from family. Social isolation and loneliness are serious health risks that affect a significant portion of the older adult population. Factors that can cause social isolation or loneliness are living alone, loss of family or friends, chronic illness, sensory impairments, and of course, the coronavirus.
Just as the physical effects of aging must be addressed, so too must the emotional aspects. Some degree of loneliness becomes inevitable as people experience significant changes later in life. But being resilient and keeping spirits up during the pandemic has been extremely difficult for many older adults.
After 24 months, effective church leaders know that the coronavirus isn’t just something we need to get through in a matter of weeks or months or, that the needs and concerns of older adults will simply lessen. Instead, the pandemic is likely to affect our lives and ministry with older adults for years, well beyond the end of the pandemic.
As church leaders, we can:
- Look for ways to help older adults interact with others and feel useful
- Acknowledge how difficult it has been for older adults these past 24+ months when they have been especially vulnerable to the coronavirus
- Listen, show interest, and ask questions when older adults feel like talking
- Show our love through our presence, smile, and eye contact
- Keep in touch through telephone reassurance ministry
If you know someone who is lonely, pick up the phone or stop by to visit. Send a note or a treat in the mail.
If older adults are unfamiliar with technology, purchase iPads or tablets and provide training for them to stay connected and participate virtually with worship services and other church programs. Provide transportation for older adults to attend worship services, Bible study, and other church activities.
Helping to mitigate the damaging effects of loneliness and social isolation during and after the pandemic can contribute to better overall health and quality of life for aging loved ones and ourselves. All it takes is that first step to get started.
Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-400-0539.