The past year has been challenging for all of as we have adjusted and learned to cope with living our lives through this pandemic. It has been more than just a public health crisis.
This crisis has impacted us across the spectrum of our entire well-being — physically, mentally and spiritually. Many of the routines and activities we look to for support, such as attending our places of worship, connecting with those we care about through social and family gatherings and holiday traditions, have been disrupted.
It has been particularly devastating for our elders. Eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths have been in adults 65 and older (CDC). In addition, we already know there is a connection between loneliness and increased risk of premature death, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and suicide. The social isolation needed to stay safe has heightened that impact even more. This has led to other challenges contributing to their suffering. Many of our elders say they feel a lack of a sense of meaning and purpose, along with no sense of joy in their day.
So, how do we fill our day with meaning?
I found it helpful to seek guidance from the very same elders we want to support. Their life experiences have conveyed much wisdom for navigating life’s difficulties while holding on to the best of us through them. One such person was Sister Columba, who I got to know while serving as a chaplain at St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton.
She was a Franciscan sister, who had committed her entire life to the ministry of health care in Eastern Oregon. She taught me about commitment to care by showing up to help others even while struggling myself. I witnessed her working well into her 80s. I learned from her, and other seniors I worked with, that filling the day with meaning includes doing activities where you feel productive and valued.
They did this by finding a goal for each day — any size goal — and tackling it with intention. The goal could be outward facing and helping others in need, or it could be inward facing, like taking a small walk to stay active, or stretching for exercise while confined to a bed. Knowing we can set our minds on something and complete it helps our sense of productivity and meaning. It doesn’t mean we need to focus on the big meaning of lofty questions, but rather engage in day-to-day activities. It is important to show up each day offering something that is valued by others.
Our social isolation has also made us keenly aware what it means to be disconnected from what is most important, whether it is a person, place and role we play or activities of which we are a part. The times of loss of those relationships threaten our sense of meaning, and our joy is replaced with sorrow. This leads us to the second lesson I’ve learned from elders. They know how to adjust to changing conditions — letting go of what they lost and allowing their lives to be transformed into something new. For example, Sister Columba successfully navigated her life changes moving from Ireland to the United States.
Over the years, she transitioned from nurse to manager to patient visitor, letting go of old roles and finding a new sense of meaning and purpose in the next stage in life. Other elders I’ve known responded with similar flexibility to life’s changing circumstances. That does not mean ignoring the emotional toll of those changes. On the contrary, the successful transition into our new connections greatly depends on our ability to acknowledge what we have lost, make room for the feelings that brings, then moving through them and adjusting to what new comes our way. That includes a willingness to make new connections.
Each loss helps us put into practice our life lessons. Since elders have managed a lifetime of change, loss and triumphs, they have much to teach others about managing the difficulties of these times if we are wise enough to listen.
Finally, there are times when we feel isolated and alone, like our sense of loss is overwhelming. The dreams you had to keep you alive and motivated for living now may seem to have disappeared like last night’s sleep. One way to help find light when it all seems dark is exercising the practice of gratitude. Each day, name three things you are thankful for. Include in that list the lives of those elders who are part of your life. Studies show this practice helps rewire our brain so we begin to see light where before we only saw darkness.
While our elders need our support, their life example and words of wisdom can help provide guidance as well as we navigate our journey together. If you are grateful to an elder for teaching you an important life lesson, let them know. You will both benefit from the conversation.