The elderly members of a local church are a unique gift. This is not, however, a popular position among all pastors. Some see the elderly as a burden on the church; the group in the church who cannot contribute much but hold back progress. There was a time early in my pastoral ministry I was tempted to think this way. But my opinion changed with time. Over the years, the elderly members of my church became some of the most significant blessings of my 25-year pastoral ministry.
This shift from burden to blessing in my thinking came as I began to get creative about how to care for these longtime, faithful members who often feel overlooked by our new, younger, energetic members. This creativity required action.
So, I walked an indoor track with Mildred, a 90-year-old widow who walked this track for five miles, three times a week.
I worked in the garden with Jim, an 82-year-old widower who always felt lost since his wife died.
I used my wife’s van and picked up five elderly ladies unable to drive themselves to take them to lunch (typically Cracker Barrel).
I took a group to sing Christmas carols in the living room of Ms. Tillie, a 106-year-old widow who loved music.
I sat numerous times at the kitchen table of Ms. Betty, an 88-year-old widow who always provided tea and cookies for our talk.
These examples remain some of my sweetest memories as a pastor.
The elderly members of a local church are a unique gift.
But COVID-19 changed all that. In the same way, I needed to get creative on how to care for elderly members feeling left out of a growing and changing church. And I also had to channel creative, pastoral instincts to wade through this uncharted territory of 2020. How do pastors and loved ones care for a group of people who are told to stay home, not get out, and keep their distance from all others for their safety? Here are five suggestions to still help meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of elderly members while maintaining a safe distance in the COVID-19 age.
1. Let them hear your voice.
When COVID-19 hit, many of our elderly members already battling loneliness and isolation experienced a new level of its intensity. I quickly learned how helpful it was for them to just hear a human voice. Phone calls became a regular practice. I even went so far as to go and stand in the middle of someone’s yard just so they could hear my voice in person. Do not underestimate how big of a difference the sound of another human’s voice can make in the extreme isolation many elderly folks have faced since March.
2. Take full advantage of technology.
I think we would all agree, the middle of COVID-19 lockdown is not the most ideal time to try and teach an 85-year-old how to use Zoom or FaceTime. But I learned it is possible. The benefits of seeing someone’s face and talking to them are significant. In fact, joining a Zoom call became a balm to the souls of many elderly in our church. I realize it can be hard and frustrating trying to help an elderly person learn these new ways of communication, especially since many of them are resistant. But we should still try. If it works, it will be worth it for them and you.
3. Find ways to be physically present at a distance.
Human beings were not made for isolation. This is the great challenge COVID-19 brought into our lives—especially the elderly. Without warning, all elderly folks were warned to avoid human contact. But because I understood this basic human need of touch and physical presence, I kept pushing for a solution. It did not take long to realize a Zoom call still did not replace physical presence. As I mentioned, I began to go to the homes of the elderly and stand in their yard and talk with them while they stood on the porch. I sat on the back deck with a mask on while they sat on the other side, providing plenty of safe distance to visit. I even stood at the glass screen door with my hands on the glass while an 85-year-old widow put her hands on mine through the glass as we talked. Find ways to be physically present, then tend to emotional and spiritual needs in that moment.
4. Drop off care packages at the front door.
This became a very practical way for anyone to serve the isolated elderly. A care package containing food, requested supplies, books, baked goods, pictures children colored, and craft materials to pass the time can safely be dropped off at the front door. I watched this become a major blessing to those longing to be remembered by others.
5. Write a physical note and mail it to them.
In the age of email and social media, writing a physical letter has practically become a lost art. But for elderly people who never bought a computer and never signed up for social media—the practice remained. To this day, I still get physical notes from members of my church and calls from a landline because they have not embraced this technological age. Therefore, do not miss the meaning behind receiving a physical note in the mail for these members. This provides something they can hold, look at, smell, and read over and over again as isolation tempts them to think they are forgotten.
I have watched some pastors simply throw their hands up in the air and declare there is nothing more we can do than make phone calls. But that is wrong. Yes, it requires creativity and a refusal to give up that is driven by a deep love for these sweet saints whose needs have not changed just because COVID-19 hit. They need what we all need—the assurance we are loved and remembered, and the comfort of human presence and interaction.