To Love and Be Loved: Caring Well for the Elderly During the Pandemic

Cassandra Schwetz '17 reflects on caring well for the elderly during the pandemic.

This story is featured in the winter 2020 issue of Lumen.

James was the first person I had ever seen die. Staff gathered in his room after we were notified that he was actively dying. As I arrived a volunteer was on his knees finishing the Divine Mercy Chaplet. His family was at his bedside. Mother Maria Francis, our mother superior at the time, was kneeling near his head at the top of the bed. The staff, which included housekeepers, kitchen aides, activity and nursing staff and maintenance men, filled the rest of the room. Mother attended to James and led the sisters in a hymn, and he breathed his last. We prayed, cried and said our goodbyes. It was beautiful.

I have worked in the activities department at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Holy Family Residence in St. Paul for a year and eight months and became the activity director in December. Whenever a resident passes away, I grieve another loss. Each resident is a unique, beloved child of God – some loud, some soft-spoken – and all part of the Little Sisters of the Poor family. When I first began working, Mother Maria made it clear to me that our Holy Family Residence was a home, not a workplace. The residents are always first, and their families are also part of this family. She explained this to me not only through words but, more than anything, through her actions.

Our residents are human beings who were created for community. They need to be able to love and be loved.

A time like this makes it obvious that physical health is only one part of well-being.

Cassie Schwetz

Above all else, our residents are to be treated as Christ. Within the struggles of human frailty and sinfulness, it is no surprise that this can be more difficult with some residents than with others. In a way, though, that is the point. Mother finds out what is important to a resident, whether it is having daily visits from a pet or eating chocolate cake, and embraces it. Families are always welcome to eat dinner with us in the dining room or join activities around the home. Staff are encouraged to sit down with residents and enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation. This is their home, after all, so it is essential that they feel at home and are known and seen by all.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has dramatically changed how the residence functions. No longer can we spend “unnecessary” time with our residents, drink coffee with them, or allow their families to embrace them – or even enter the building. We are required to not only wear masks, but also goggles or face shields when doing direct care. Residents are to keep to their floors and stay six feet from everyone.

To say that working in a nursing home during COVID-19 has been difficult is an understatement. When a resident reaches out for a hug you hesitate and redirect for fear of getting too close. It is heartbreaking. One of the most natural, loving human actions has become stunted.

Since the pandemic began, part of my job has been to help facilitate window visits and video chats with family members. While it is a blessing to assist residents in seeing their loved ones, even if only through a window, it is also incredibly overwhelming. My heart aches to see families coax their loved ones closer to an open window only for staff to have to usher them back. To try to comfort residents as they cry in their rooms because they miss their families. To sit with a resident with dementia during a visit and continually remind them, “Yes, this is your daughter,” when you can sense that, if family wasn’t prevented from coming into the building to visit in person, they likely would not have forgotten who they were.

A time like this makes it obvious that physical health is only one part of well-being. We are not merely machines that, with a little grease, will soon be back to “normal.” I am seeing a health decline speed up for many of our residents due to the current situation. Our residents are human beings who were created for community. They need to be able to love and be loved.

I cannot solve this with more bingo games and happy hour carts. No matter how hard I try to fill the void, I cannot satisfy their desire to see and touch their children and grandchildren. They cannot satisfy my desire to see my grandparents. Yet, I can say with absolute surety that we at the Holy Family Residence will continue to work tirelessly to love and nurture our residents. For us they are not only family, they are the face of Christ.