Empowerment of Older People During COVID-19


empowerment of older people

As churches begin to open their doors, twelve weeks after the Stay-at-Home campaign was launched, many individuals will not return immediately. The most recent guidance regarding the opening of churches advise that; the ‘clinically vulnerable, and the people over 70s should stay at home.’ For many of those affected, faith is their main connection to their community. When this connection is missing, what is the impact on these people? In a recent gathering hosted by Caritas Westminster involving St Vincent de Paul (SVP) and the Irish Chaplaincy, there was much discussion on how to empower older people as we emerge from lockdown.

The digital connection we have today has lifted many people out of the loneliness and isolation which has come hand and hand with the nation-wide lockdown.  For example, Hounslow parish has been welcoming up to 5000 people on its online streamed Masses. This is thanks to hardware installed prior to lockdown and an IT savvy parish team. ‘Requests for emergency support in the parish quickly changed from shopping and food parcels, to IT support in connecting to Mass’, details Vincent Joaquim Ferndandes, their SVP President and Caritas Representative.

While for some the digital inclusion has proved to be extremely successful, priests located in other parishes were sad to report that they did not have telephone numbers and addresses of many of their parishioners prior to lockdown. Despite reaching out into the community, they were still unable to contact many of these individuals. Additionally, without the technology to stream online Mass, many older members of the community are feeling isolated from the Church; they can feel discriminated against by a new form of ageism. One 93-year-old has said she felt ‘abandoned by the church’. 

In other cases, the physical health of some parishioners is deteriorating.  A woman reported that after being housebound for weeks, and no longer having her daily trip to Mass, she was now struggling to walk as far as she could and would be lucky to get half way down her road.   Also, SVP volunteers reported high levels of anxiety, and instances of depression, caused by the constant worry of catching the disease, which is disproportionately affecting those over 70 years old – including many who are experiencing bereavement and are unable to attend funerals of those close to them. An entire demographic is left feeling secluded and disconnected in a time when the world is left to congregate on the internet.

In response to this recent spike in this digital divide, churches and organisations on the ground, such as the Irish Chaplaincy, are creating innovative projects to tackle the anxiety, bereavement and isolation of individuals who do not have access to the internet. One of the schemes presented by the Irish Chaplaincy was a process of handing out specially designed tablets to the Chaplaincy’s clients. This includes a member of the staff team, with remote access to the tablet, to provide technical support while keeping them safe. By also including a portable Wi-Fi connection, the lack of Wi-Fi in the home does not serve as a problem. Paul Raymond from Irish Chaplaincy has said that the scheme has been met with excitement and great gratitude from the recipients. ‘It’s the nicest thing anyone has done for me. I felt so lonely during lockdown. Now I feel so connected. With this tablet, I’ve been able to see my nephew, my friends in London and even my friends in Ireland. I love listening to the Irish radio and getting Mass. I can’t thank you enough.’

empowerment of older people

Other parish volunteers have reported hand delivering parish newsletters to those with no online access; an opportunity to see a familiar face through the window or going that extra mile with a gift. By simply placing a box of Earl Grey Tea, some fine chocolate, and a small letter on somebody’s doorstep, volunteers have witnessed tears and immense appreciation. 

Many of our volunteers consisted of over 70s and after being actively involved, are frustrated at no longer being able to volunteer in their community. However, they are now on the receiving end of other people’s kindness.  While left housebound, some of these volunteers have formed a new army of callers to provide telephone support to others who are socially isolating.  Groups such as those in Harrow North Parish, have been encouraging knitting and sewing groups from home. They are providing clothes for babies born in lockdown at Caritas Bakhita House, the safehouse for women who have been trafficked, or sewing scrubs for care workers.

Every day we are reminded of the selflessness of humanity in a time of crisis. Hundreds of people have offered to shop for neighbours and friends, in order to help shelter them from harm’s way and each day we are seeing more programs to help empower the older people in parishes. Sr Silvana Dallanegra, the Caritas Westminster Development Worker for West London, quoted Dorothy Day to summarise the meeting; “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learnt that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”  This has served as a lesson that often; all people need is to see a smiling face.

A silver-lining to the pandemic has been the huge and generous increase of volunteers.  It has been wonderful to witness the number of people willing to be the smiling face others need in this time of national emergency.   These new volunteers have often been younger members of the parish, who have more mobility in the current climate and can aid the most vulnerable people in the parish.  Organisations such as the SVP are keen to recruit younger members alongside existing members, to keep up the amazing work over the last 175 years.

As some of us relish the opportunity to return to church, please don’t forget those who are still unable to visit.  If you know anybody who needs support in the community or to reconnect spiritually with their church community, but is finding it difficult, or if you would like to be part of those who are there to help, please contact:

Caritas Westminster on 020 7931 6077

SVP on 07810 386121

Irish Chaplaincy on 07787 936 631

For more information, you can also email Caritas Westminster at caritaswestminster@rcdow.org.uk



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