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As of March 15 – when this piece is being drafted – I am sitting in a D.C.-area hospital. My second child has just been born, and my wife and I are missing church because of our infant’s vulnerability to a variety of illnesses, including potential vulnerability to the coronavirus.
On the other side of the age range are my grandparents. Pah is 87, has dementia, and was recently transferred from an assisted living facility to a nursing home. Nana’s 86th birthday last week consisted of her being confined to Pah’s assisted living suite, unable to be with her husband of 65 years, return to their home of more than 50 years, or to see local children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I spoke to Nana on March 13 and again today. She’s lonely, frustrated and suffering. But even if I lived close, I would join with most responsible people in showing love … by not visiting her. Because I want to see her around the holidays, and that might not happen by visiting her right now.
Social distancing is putting people out of work, canceling schools and tanking the stock market. It has been driven by fear, and it is creating even more fear as money problems and uncertainty grow. However, at its core is love, and a sacrifice to protect those most vulnerable to the coronavirus’ effects – the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and those whose life-saving resources would be used up by a more virulent epidemic.
Americans make life-saving decisions every day as a matter of course. We cut food into bite-sized pieces, we wear seatbelts, and we drive the speed limit. But social distancing is unique in that it is completely self-sacrificing. Those who will benefit may be Nana and Pah, or they may be the elderly relatives of the random person we didn’t pass in Starbucks, on the subway, or on the elevator.
Social distancing is millions of people making hundreds of sacrifices to keep the elderly alive. It doesn’t include the temptations to run from society or make an excuse to avoid one’s obligations – such as life-saving medical work, the Mass obligations of Catholics, or the parental obligation to buy groceries. What it does include is applying love through prudence. And in doing so, it offers an amazing opportunity for those who care about the elderly to find new ways to love them.
Social distancing is millions of people making hundreds of sacrifices to keep the elderly alive.
One way is to work with senior care facility staff to get Grandma and Grandpa up to speed on technology. Skype, Zoom and FaceTime may be newfangled, but they may also be mental health savers for quarantined senior citizens. The gift of an iPad or laptop will teach people who may have never seen the value in technology-based social tools, keeping their minds sharp through continued learning and the human need to be with those whom we love. A digital picture frame takes less work, but the one my cousin and his wife bought Nana a few years ago is one of her most valued possessions.
Another tactic is to keep better in touch with elders. If we’re not engaged as much in our normal work or school, we have extra time to call parents and grandparents. We can also ask elderly relatives how to can best support them spiritually and use our sacrifices as an opportunity to bring us, our community and world closer.
Turning attention from fear and quarantine to opportunity to create closer familial relationships may be difficult, but it will keep everyone focused on a positive future. It will also turn fear into love, reminding both lonely senior citizens and their now-distant family members that social distancing is first and foremost about charity toward those we know and those we don’t – even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.