Individuals residing in senior living communities across the country are feeling the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and it's been much more than physical. New safety and hygiene precautions keep them safe from the outbreak, but for many, the effects are emotional and even spiritual in nature. Everyday concerns are compounded by existential worry; they miss their families, their friends, their favorite activities, and their sense of freedom.
Autumn J. at The Peaks, A Senior Living Community in Flagstaff, AZ, managed by The Goodman Group, is one of many spiritual care directors across the country who are ensuring the emotional and spiritual health of residents in a time of disconnection and confusion. She's seen the invisible impact of the pandemic firsthand. "They can't dine together and they miss seeing each other in groups," she says. "That social interaction is really part of why they even wanted to come here."
The Role of a Spiritual Care Director
Spiritual care directors like Autumn have been helping residents find inner peace amidst a world of uncertainty. Coming to the profession from behavioral health or religious backgrounds, spiritual care directors straddle the roles of confidant and emotional advocate. Autumn describes herself as "somewhere between a counselor and a chaplain," working with residents and "exploring meaning, purpose, and hope."
One-on-one meditation, daily readers, and connecting residents to their worship services virtually are a few ways spiritual care directors help residents explore those topics during COVID-19. Groups gather virtually for book clubs and psychology study; religious gatherings and long-distance games are enjoyed remotely with technical help from assistants.
Cathy N., spiritual care director for The Lakes at Stillwater in Stillwater, MN, leads a weekly “Joy for the Journey” program on Mondays, built around inspiring themes and stories to help residents start their week on a positive note. Prior to COVID-19, the group gathered about 20 residents every Monday. With social distancing rules in place, Cathy found a way to continue the group without the face-to-face aspect.
"I trained [the residents] carefully on how to do a conference call," Cathy says. "The same kind of things happen: I bring a theme, and we have a discussion, and I leave them with some inspiration."
With limited means of human connection, spiritual care directors are bringing residents closer to the faith and spiritual traditions they depend on in a time when they're needed most. Sometimes, that means having larger – and deeper – conversations about residents' specific worries.
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In what Autumn calls "life review," she'll discuss individual regrets, stressors, and other factors of a resident's life that can cause spiritual and emotional unease. This is a spiritual care director's stock-and-trade – knowing how to approach big discussions and be an emotional outlet for residents in need.
"I would say that it escalated to this COVID time," Cathy says, "because when you're left by yourself a lot more, a lot of stuff comes up. And it's a privilege to sit with people as they share those things. I love the one-on-one work and I love the group work that we do."
Autumn adds, "I think it's an incredible honor that, with the majority of residents here, we have enough of a relationship where they trust me to share their suffering."
Reconnecting Relationships – Inside and Outside of Senior Living Communities
“If we think about what gives people meaning, it's relationships," Autumn says. She means that game night isn't about Uno and book club isn't about Moby Dick – they're really about using those tools to learn and grow with friends and loved ones who can't be near. Naturally, keeping in touch with family by distanced visitation and virtual meetups is one of the most important ways spiritual care directors have eased residents into the new normal.
Spiritual care directors make it a point to preserve that connection, even as the ways they connect are changing. "I have the opportunity in my role to see how meaningful it is for families to connect," she says. “I’ve gotten a lot of appreciation not only from residents, but also family members who were super grateful."
Cathy has seen the same gratitude and deepening relationships within The Lakes at Stillwater. She feels like "families appreciate the reassurance of just knowing that even if [residents are] having to be isolated, you're still supporting them in that way ... Since they can't see their own kids or family members, I think they've become more deeply connected to those of us on the staff."
"It just matters so much and it brings so much joy for them," Autumn notices. "I have a set of residents I meet with weekly where I help them set up family phone calls, and that's the highlight of the week."
"Residents Want to Enjoy Life"
Sometimes, it's about discussing lifelong regrets and emotional confusion – and sometimes, it's as simple as being there for residents. Autumn says, "What's most meaningful for some is [having] somebody to sit down and talk philosophy with, or sit down and share a poem [with]." Spiritual care directors bring the same passion and effort to both strategies.
"This is one of the things I love about this role as a spiritual care director," Autumn says. "While we do a lot of sort of heavy work, so to speak, in that people might be talking about regrets or shame or loss and grief, there's also such a huge part of it that is so celebratory. Like the residents want to enjoy life."
Even in close-knit communities, social distancing can make it easy to lose sight of those connections between residents. But spiritual care directors like Autumn are protecting those relationships every day. "I've seen that what has brought people the most joy and the most suffering is really love," Autumn says. "It's the love they have for each other. Nourishing that is, I think, nourishing the spirit."
When Autumn says that, she's not just talking about the residents' spirits. She's talking about her own, and those of spiritual care directors everywhere.
"I will tell you, I am grateful every day for this work," Autumn says. "It's humbling. I hope I'm doing enough. And it's just like... even talking about it, I get almost choked up. I just... I'm so grateful."