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Faith Leaders Bridge Isolation Gap for Older Adults During Pandemic

By Liz Pomerleau

Across the globe, we are experiencing something so extraordinary that, at times, it is still hard to fathom how our daily circumstances have changed so drastically. Families are separated, children are no longer in school, businesses for the most part shuttered, and masks have become somewhat of a fashion statement. But it’s those who are in our most vulnerable population that may be experiencing the most change – people in senior communities. Older adults find themselves more isolated than ever under quarantine orders designed to protect their health.

Faith, whether it is being tested, re-discovered or shared to help others remain steadfast during these difficult times, is bridging this isolation gap and also an emotional gap. And it’s the leaders within the faith community that so many are looking to for guidance and reassurance.

As with the rest of the worldwide education field, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programs are making changes so they can continue to bring spirituality into people’s lives and address the spiritual and emotional needs of those in isolation. CPE programs focus on educating and training chaplains and faith leaders in spiritual care. Students come from many different religious traditions and cultural backgrounds.

The CPE program at Goodwin House Incorporated, a senior living and health care services organization Northern Virginia, is one of only seven CPE programs nationwide that trains chaplains in a life-plan community setting. The program specializes in the spiritual journey of aging and the ministry of mutuality. CPE students befriend, explore life, deepen spirituality, and learn from older adults.

At senior living communities in particular, many residents may be struggling with loneliness and disruption due to the current pandemic, so members of the CPE program are pivoting to help them through “tele-chaplaincy.” Professional chaplains in hospitals, hospices and healthcare settings nationwide also are exploring some form of tele-chaplaincy to continue their vital work of spiritual care in the midst of the pandemic. Connecting with people via phone and video chat is one of the most effective ways to provide spiritual and emotional support and simultaneously keep people safe.

In early March, Goodwin House CPE pulled students from in-person ministry contexts as it became clear that social distancing was crucial to protect individuals and staff throughout our senior living communities. That pivot launched a journey into the unknown terrain of tele-chaplaincy and virtual learning. It has been a grand adventure.

We received an overwhelmingly positive response to tele-chaplaincy. In fact, Goodwin House CPE Students reported that 86 percent of residents have been engaging in regular check-ins. That’s dramatically more than attend weekly worship services.

One resident, Bob Harris, a recent widower, writes, “I had a very good phone visit with your student today. He’s called me several times to check on me. Today’s call was especially rich. He asked me a number of powerful questions that pressed me to think about next steps on my journey of grief.” These phone and video visits offer residents a chance to connect with new people and reflect on their own lives amidst the solitude of COVID-19.

Another way the CPE students are supporting emotional support during the pandemic is through video recordings. Two Muslim Imam students have created Friday sermons for Muslim staff at our two senior living communities for each Friday of Ramadan. And soon, the upcoming class of summer students will create daily spirituality and devotional videos to be shared with Goodwin House residents. For students that plan to go into parish ministry, this opportunity to explore the world of digital connection is powerful.

In April, we hosted our first-ever virtual CPE graduation as circumstances did not allow for an in-person gathering. The graduating students stretched across faith communities; coming from Episcopal, Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, Spiritualist, and Methodist faith backgrounds. They welcomed Goodwin House residents and family and friends of CPE students from as far away as Hong Kong. The ceremony honored the journey that the students embarked on and celebrated all they learned and accomplished over the 15-week course. These students are pioneers of virtual ministry and helped to test the infrastructure that makes such connections possible for future classes.

At a time when staying at home and away from others is most beneficial to their physical health, faith leaders and CPE programs are bridging the isolation gap. Whether it is for a daily chat, a shared prayer, moral support or simply to keep them company, chaplains are serving as a spiritual shoulder for older adults to lean on during a difficult time for everyone.

 

Liz Pomerleau, BCCI, ACPE Associate Educator, Director of Clinical Pastoral Education at Goodwin House Incorporated.