Missing Mass: Social isolation keeps elders safe but lonely

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tristan John “Teejay” Cabrera, courtesy Unbound.org

By Bronwen Dachs

In communities around the world, the social isolation that keeps elders safe from the coronavirus but precludes going to church is proving extremely difficult for many. In some remote areas, younger generations are helping their elders.

In the Philippines, near Quezon City, 55-year-old Melinda Garcia used to help her 100-year-old mother, Julita Santiago, who is blind in her left eye and uses a wheelchair, get to their nearby chapel every day. Now both women are required by local restriction orders to stay indoors.

“Even on days when there is no Mass, I would go to the chapel so that I will not feel bored at home,” Santiago said. “Now, I spend my days doing personal prayers and taking sight of the surroundings outside my front door.”

Also in Quezon City, 73-year-old Rosalina Barra said she feels “so stressed out, afraid and worried” because she lives alone. While she listens to Masses on the radio, she misses the pre-pandemic times when she could “pray quietly inside the church because I feel at peace there.”

In a remote area of northwestern Tanzania, people older than 70 in the Village Angels of Tanzania project do not know anyone infected with COVID-19 and have difficulty grasping “what it’s all about,” said Sister Dativa Mukebita, a Franciscan Sister of St. Bernadette.

About 20 people ages 16-30 repair houses among other caregiving activities for the 80 elderly people served by the project in two villages in Ngara District. With cellphones and Wi-Fi, the younger people quickly understood the importance of wearing masks and other COVID-19 precautions, Sister Mukebita said, noting that they made masks for themselves and for others too.

But without access to the internet, television, newspapers or radio, “all the elderly know about the coronavirus is what we tell them,” she said.

“We have told them it is a reality and educated them on what to do to keep safe,” but they find the social distancing particularly difficult, she said.

The project’s main aim is to reduce the loneliness and isolation of the elders in a country with few provisions such as nursing homes or pensions for the poor, Sister Mukebita said. Connecting the elders with young people with little education or skills in an area with very few jobs is mutually beneficial, she said.

The youths, who receive a stipend for providing support and companionship to the elderly, are careful to wash their hands and stick to the new health protocols when they deliver food once a week, she said. In fact, the pandemic has prompted them to take extra care in checking up on the older people’s well-being, she said.

The deliveries include vegetables that the young people grow, Sister Mukebita said.

Often during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis has called on young people to reach out to their grandparents or the elderly who may be lonely or on their own. Most recently he did this during his Angelus address July 26, the feast of Sts. Joachim and St. Anne, Jesus’ grandparents.

“Use the inventiveness of love, make phone calls, video calls, send messages, listen to them and, where possible, in compliance with health care regulations, go to visit them, too. Send them a hug,” he said.

In San Pedro, Guatemala, 65-year-old Cecilia Bixcul attended Mass twice a week before COVID-19 put an end to that. Unable to read, she now relies on her grandchildren to read prayer cards to her so she can keep up with her devotions.

Bixcul lives with her daughter, who lost her teaching job during the lockdown, and three grandchildren. The money she earns from handwashing clothes for people in her community — a job she’s done since she was 12 — helps keep the family afloat.

“I would like everything to be normal again, I am praying to God for that,” she said.

Bixcul is one of more than 30,000 elders who receive cash transfers and direct services from Unbound, a Catholic-founded nonprofit organization that works with families around the world.

In Kibagare in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, 67-year-old Benetta Muhinda runs a small business from the one-room home she shares with four of her grandchildren. Her income from selling charcoal briquettes that she makes by mixing charcoal dust, water and soil is now very small, but she has no option but to keep working during the pandemic, she said.

Muhinda, who raises her grandchildren on her own and cannot read, said she suffers in being unable to go to church to practice her faith. Attending Mass was particularly important because she could listen, while at home there is no one to interpret the Bible for her, she said.

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