An Added Struggle for Vulnerable Seniors and Their Helpers
I worked as Director of Pastoral Care at Our Lady’s Haven in Fairhaven, Massachusetts one of five Catholic nursing homes in the Diocese of Fall River. For the past seventeen years, I have been a compassionate and caring presence to the residents and staff of this 117-bed nursing home in the fishing village of Fairhaven, a suburb of New Bedford, in Massachusetts. I was looking forward to retiring, and the date was set for Friday, the 1st of May. I would continue to minister through a final Lent and Easter and then move on. Let me tell you how life abruptly colored these simple and straightforward plans and what I have learned from it all.
Our Lady’s Haven, Fairhaven
Leaving the Haven and the weeks following have left me more aware of the great sense of loss and isolation that our residents must have experienced since our facility went into lockdown from mid-March to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Lockdown in the nursing home meant no visits from family or friends, no friendly volunteers saying hello on a hallway, no Eucharistic ministers coming to rooms after Mass, and worst of all, no daily Mass and Holy Communion. Residents were also quarantined one from the other, confined to their rooms at all times, eating meals alone, with no scheduled activities to lighten the day for them. The only persons they saw were their nurses, the Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) and various Directors like me who would stop into their rooms. I remember the residents telling me about being lonely and I would share words of encouragement with them.
Since retiring, I now think even more of their loneliness and I experience a bit of it myself; I miss them. They had become my family. I, too, am feeling the pain of loneliness, of loss, of being cut off from them and from so many of their families. I’m so aware of how important it is to be known and be connected with those we love and who love us.
“Stay Home and Be Safe” is all we have heard since this cruel intruder, COVID-19, came ashore and in a stealthy way devastated our lives and our beautiful world. It has no “Mercy” on anyone. It overwhelms me with grief when I learn of families who have been torn by anxiety at the sickness, and then pushed into grief at the death of loved ones. After the few months of this, I realized that the residents’ loneliness and pain had begun to seep into my own life, and I was hurting.
I think back to Friday, March 13th, and the directives from bishops and governors. Because of the Corona Virus, public Mass would be suspended. This would begin to alter my ministry. I set to planning with my administrator and Father Jim, our local chaplain, who said Mass every day for the residents. There was a final Mass in the Haven on Monday March 16th at which several ciboria of hosts were consecrated. Beginning on St. Patrick’s Day and without the assistance of my volunteer Special Ministers of the Eucharist, who could no longer come into the building, I would go from floor to floor, room to room, bringing the gift of the Eucharist each day to our residents.
Within two weeks another directive came which said that even the Eucharist was not to be distributed/received as a safety precaution. Ministry curtailed once again, I continued to say the Rosary each morning over the closed-circuit TV. I would then begin my rounds of pastoral visiting with residents, cheering them up, chatting about what concerns they had and praying with them when necessary. This pastoral ministry extended to all staff on all floors.
I began to note the anxiety and loneliness of the residents these weeks; they had not seen their families since March. Truly, they had not even seen other residents since all meals were served in their rooms and each one ate alone. They longed for news of when this strange way of living would be over for them.
Each morning all employees reported to the Lobby for a temperature check and then we donned the required PPE (personal protective equipment) of surgical masks and face shields to be used at all times. In spite of these daily precautions, various staff began not to feel well. Some tested positive, and had to quarantine for two weeks. Ultimately our daily fear became a reality; one staff member, who was a-symptomatic and had worked a shift, went home and tested positive. The COVID-19 Virus had been in the Haven!
On Sunday, April 26th my administrator called to tell me that unfortunately our first residents had become sick and been tested for the Virus; it had arrived now among our most vulnerable in the Haven! By Wednesday of that week, two floors had to be quarantined. I had to respect the quarantine and regretted not being able to go to those floors to visit residents. With growing numbers of sick residents and a diminished staff, the National Guard came in on Wednesday, April 29th to test all residents and staff. I was virus-free but there was no joy as I closed my office door for the last time on May 1st with a very sad heart. Only the grace of God and a prayer life empowered me to do one of the hardest things I ever had to do; walk out without saying goodbye to the residents and staff I have known and loved over my seventeen years. Their grieving has become my own.
I continue to connect with the residents at the Haven and look forward to the day when I can drive the 35 miles from my home in Providence, Rhode Island back to Our Lady’s Haven to visit the residents who survived COVID-19. While I will be delighted to see them, I certainly will miss seeing the twenty-six residents who have gone home to God since my last days in the Haven.
Eileen Fitzpatrick rsm