Cathy Tisher has served as a nursing home chaplain for more than 17 years in the Oklahoma City area. Currently, she is the only chaplain for three senior living facilities and serves as the home bound ministry leader in her local church.
At the time production began for the unit that features Cathy’s work, our world was just beginning to hear about and understand the impact of COVID-19. And then, COVID-19 began spreading across the country. At first glance, life at senior living facilities remained unchanged. However, there were significant restrictions put in place that made life inside a facility even more isolating than normal. This isolation was further compounded by the fact that those on the outside were overwhelmed dealing with the crisis as well.
As the nation continues to emerge from the pandemic, it is important for us to understand how the residents and staff at senior living facilities have been impacted.
Cathy took time to share a look inside her three senior living facilities in June 2020. This insight is helpful as we seek to minister during the pandemic and post-pandemic.
Missions Journey: Can you share how the residents are doing?
Cathy Tisher: For the residents that are aware of what is going on, many are dealing with depression due to the isolation. They are not allowed out of their rooms; meals are brought to them. In one of my nursing homes they were allowing the residents to gather (at a 6-foot distance and masks on) for me to lead a weekly Skype Bible study on a big screen tv. Unfortunately the State Board of Health stepped in last week and said we could not do that right now. So we are having to come up with a plan B. We have a limited number of laptops to put one in each room individually and the facility’s WiFi capabilities are limited. Prayers appreciated as we work through this. The residents were very grateful to at least be able to get out their rooms for this each week.
Missions Journey: How is this impacting them physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Cathy Tisher: The residents are not getting to have any kind of exercise classes, so there is no doubt their physical bodies are weakening. Staff does not have time to do this with each resident individually. Some residents are experiencing concerning weight loss because they don’t want to eat. I have one resident that it was so severe that they finally had to let the daughter come back in to the building to get her to eat. Some residents are very angry about not being allowed to move around freely. I am available to talk with and listen to them. In my Bible studies I’ve tried to focus on the reminder that the Lord is still with them during these challenging days, that He has not abandoned or forsaken them. We all need to trust and call upon Him to help us and bring an end to it. For those that understand and are able, I give them scripture verses to read and focus on to help them get through this time.
Missions Journey: How about the staff?
Cathy Tisher: The staff is stressed and overworked. But I have to add, this is nothing new. There has always been a shortage of hands-on staff in my care centers. But now, with having to continually change PPE (personal protective equipment) from room-to-room care and having to be “enforcers” of making sure residents stay in their rooms (a job they did not sign up for), the stress is high. They don’t like being the “bad” person in all this.
Missions Journey: Do you see any long term effects on the residents?
Cathy Tisher: We are already seeing the memory effects of those residents with dementia-type issues. From the beginning, my concern has been if those folks will remember who their loved ones are once they can be with them again. Window visits are just not the same. I have talked with family members who have shared they are concerned their loved one won’t remember their name or who they are. Staff has been trying hard to help residents with FaceTime calls to family but this can only happen on a limited basis. Plus folks with dementia don’t understand all that and don’t do well with trying.
Missions Journey: What are some practical ways that people can reach out to the residents while maintaining social distance?
- Recently, my church provided the funds for me to go buy snacks and drinks to drop off at my places for both staff and residents. We bought a lot from Sam’s to give each place. The vending machines are closed down right now so this was just a tangible way to show our love and concern. Staff is not allowed to bring anything in and are having to eat food fixed at the nursing homes for their meal each shift. The bill for food costs has gone up tremendously (they are not charging staff for their meal), but some staff shared with me due to shortage of certain things, what they get is not always very good. So just giving them some extra things to last a few weeks meant much to them. Several staff have reached out to me to say “thanks.” We would have done this sooner, but my places only started receiving items like this two weeks ago. A group would not have to buy like what we did. Even if it was enough to have a special day of snacks, that would be good.
- Get gift cards and deliver to the places for staff to go to a fast food place.
- Have children make cards to give to residents. You will have to check with your local care centers to see if they will receive them. This varies from facility to facility.
- Spend time praying for residents and staff. Most folks really do not understand the severity of the situation for these places. When they tell us over 50% of the deaths occurring in the U.S. are from nursing homes, it should help us all see how vulnerable these folks are. Now that they are doing facility wide testing, a staff member in one of my places who was asymptomatic, tested positive recently. The spread in these places is happening because of this very thing.
- If a facility has the capability, a church might see if they could pre-record a service and let it be played on Sunday morning over the in-house sound system. Keep it short, no longer than 20 minutes, remembering the folks are having to sit at the doorways to listen.
Please continue to pray for Cathy and for those to whom she ministers. Pray for senior adults around you who have been through similar situations. Ask God to provide comfort, peace, and healing. Be the church for those who cannot come to church.
LaRaine Rice lives in Lexington, Kentucky. She serves as the ministry leader for the Southern Bluegrass Region for Orphan Care Alliance. She is married to Jeff and the mother of two 9-year-olds who keep her on her feet!