Chaplaincy during COVID

The dining room opened yesterday at the Seasons, a senior living facility. This statement may seem pretty mundane. You might assume that it was closed for renovation, or that it had just been cleaned, in which case this would not be a noteworthy event. But this is a noteworthy event, because the dining room has been closed for six weeks.

It reopened because the residents of the Seasons have finally all been vaccinated.

The Seasons is my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) placement this year. During this pandemic, the group of people I work with have been part of the most vulnerable population. The elderly and infirm have doubly suffered, first from the devastating effects of the COVID virus and then from the extreme isolation that has come with social distancing precautions. It is hard to say which is the most difficult. Until the COVID infection levels became really high in Hamilton county, I was able to go in person and lead Shabbat services most of this year, with chairs spaced out six feet apart in the auditorium rather than in the chapel, and with everyone wearing masks. Even though this setup was far less than ideal, the residents were so grateful for a chance to be in community at a time when many of them could not see their families. I recently spoke to a woman who told me that it has been really hard to go a year without getting a hug. Those Shabbats have taught me the deep and enduring value of Jewish ritual—it provides something constant in an ever-changing world, it brings people together in community, and it offers critical spiritual comfort.

Now that all of the residents are vaccinated, group activities and the dining room have been opened once again, and the residents are overjoyed. They all speak about how they took for granted the ability to be with other people, and now they understand how important it really is. From them, I’ve also learned the value of connecting with other people. I’ve learned that the most valuable thing I can offer them is simply the attention of someone who cares and is willing to listen. We all value people who care, and who take the time to listen. 

Now that group activities are open, I’m planning on returning to my first Shabbat in person at the Seasons in quite some time. It feels like the first step back to normalcy, and everyone is so excited, including me. 

This experience of chaplaincy work has taught me two important lessons. The first is that the elderly and aged are, even in the best of times, the most isolated population, in need of love and care. The second is that people need other people no matter how old we are, what stage in life we are in, or how difficult the circumstances are. We all need a hug or an in-person visit once in a while. Hopefully someday soon that’s something we can all give to each other.

Becca Diamond is a fourth-year rabbinical student at HUC. Her CPE placement is at the Seasons Senior Living.

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