One of the gut-wrenching realities of the coronavirus is its threat to the elderly and other people with suppressed immune systems or underlying health conditions.
As Italy’s case numbers soared in mid-March, its early reports on the death rate for older people contracting COVID-19 were sobering: Some 13 percent of Italians in their 70s who had tested positive for the virus had died. The ratio hit 21 percent for those in their 80s.
Researchers were still unsure about accurate death rates among the elderly. Italy’s high ratios could reflect the unknown number of total cases in the country, as health officials clamored to gain more tests and screen more widely. But the insidiousness of the virus for older people was clear: Some 87 percent of those who died from COVID-19 were over 70.
In the U.S., some 49.2 million Americans are over the age of 65: That’s about 15 percent of the population.
COVID-19 isn’t a death sentence for every older American, but it is a clear threat, and much about the virus remained unknown as U.S. officials took dramatic steps (sometimes including government orders) to urge Americans to stay home as much as possible and to help older populations self-isolate.
As churches made tech-savvy plans for live-streaming worship, many also made old-fashioned phone calls to older or isolated members of the congregation: Do you have what you need? What can we bring you? Would you just like to talk?
Jamie Aten, the executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, says thinking about how churches communicated 15 years ago will help congregants better stay in touch with older members who are less high-tech.
A consistent plan for regular phone calls and errand-runs will remain important. Churches can also look to connect with local public health agencies to understand what services they offer to older citizens, and to help them navigate those waters during long-term turbulence.
(And remember: Live-stream services won’t benefit populations without access to the technology to use them.)
Aten says the COVID-19 crisis is much more difficult because of a reality that hasn’t changed when it comes to disaster response: “All humanitarian aid is relational by its very nature.” That echoes the Biblical truth that millions of Americans are learning in a painfully acute way: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
What about those who are alone, and who don’t have social connections? How can the church find them?
The number in that category is growing: Between 1990 and 2010, the divorce rate among adults over age 50 doubled. That means fewer older Americans have spouses to help with their care. About 2 million frail, older adults are without children, and often have no natural caregiver to help them.
Another especially vulnerable population: grandparents who care for their grandchildren. More than 6 million children in the U.S. live in a home with a grandparent, according to Generations United. For some 2.4 million children, grandparents are the primary caregivers, with no birth parent living in the home.
The coronavirus poses an especially daunting challenge for many of those grandparents: How can they self-isolate and take care of children who may carry the virus without showing symptoms? There isn’t a slew of obvious answers, but outside help may be especially critical for them.
The National Volunteer Caregiving Network is a non-profit organization serving a half-million people who are older or have disabilities. Tammy Glenn, the group’s executive director, says most of those people don’t have a network of support around them and can’t afford to hire anyone to help them.
Chapters across the country match screened volunteers with local seniors who need help with basic tasks: grocery shopping, a ride to a doctor’s appointment, social visits, and other non-medical needs.
As COVID-19 began its rampage in the U.S., Glenn says the organization quickly started receiving more calls from seniors who needed help as they self-isolated. The importance of social distancing meant some tasks were no longer possible: Volunteers couldn’t give car rides or go into the homes of seniors.
But they could still make phone calls, and they could still make grocery drops for those who need it. That still held true as the crisis deepened. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsome requested all residents to leave home only for essential needs, but that didn’t apply to those taking critical supplies to vulnerable populations.
Indeed, the call for volunteers was rising, not going down. But those volunteers needed to be younger: The rolls of recent retirees who often serve older communities may find themselves in the category that needs to stay home as well.
Across the country, local citizens found creative ways to help neighbors. Some efforts might offer ideas to churches looking to connect with seniors in their communities. For example, the Maywood Community Association in Arlington, Va., formed a task force to seek out neighbors who need help.
The Washington Post reported that Michele Hansen made a map of the 400 houses in the neighborhood and left fliers on front doors. The fliers included information on how to ask for help getting food and essential supplies. Hansen assigned volunteers to take a territory to help manage requests. The fliers read: “If you are high-risk or end up needing to self-quarantine, know that your neighbors are here to help you.”