Called to Think Differently about Community

Conversations with Katie | April 14, 2020

Last week’s religious observances of Passover and Holy Week presented us with dramatic symbols of how our lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seders held on Zoom? Easter celebrations conducted in empty churches and streamed on YouTube? I attended a lovely and moving memorial service via Zoom with people from as far away as South Africa.

None of us have ever experienced anything quite like this. And, yet, we adapt. We do what we can to keep ourselves connected while staying apart. We do it all in the name of saving lives. But it’s not easy.

The value—and the pain—of social-distancing becomes particularly evident to me each time I talk by phone with a LeadingAge member. Our members are doing their very best to help residents and clients use technology to stay connected with family and friends. But to keep residents and clients safe, the same members are taking steps that appear to go against everything they stand for.

Organizational leaders who have spent their careers promoting independence and interconnectedness among older adults now find themselves implementing rules and practices they would ordinarily view as draconian. And they’re feeling very uncomfortable about it.

Organizations are prohibiting visitors, and many are requiring that residents who leave the community for any reason self-isolate for 14 days—sometimes longer—after their return.

Some members are removing furniture from common areas as a way to keep residents from congregating and spreading the virus unknowingly. Others are blocking off benches on patios and in courtyards to make sure residents enjoy fresh air while remaining 6 feet apart.

Members are closing dining rooms and leaving meals outside apartment doors. They are locking activity areas and canceling classes and events. They are forcing residents into isolation—the kind of isolation these members have long dedicated themselves to eliminating.

I’m hearing how sad members are to find themselves “unraveling” community rather than building it. “This doesn’t feel like us,” they tell me.

I respect these heartfelt revelations and honor LeadingAge members who remain so dedicated to carrying out their missions, even during this pandemic.

Unfortunately for all of us, these unusual times call for a whole new perspective on the practices we hold dear. The hard-to-accept truth is that fulfilling your mission as a nonprofit provider of aging services now means accepting that you are called to think about community very differently.

The next time you’re feeling sad about this new calling, remember that it is only temporary.

Believe that community as we knew it can and will be rekindled when this pandemic is over.

Trust, as I do, that our shared isolation over these many weeks will make our shared experience of community—and our gratitude for one another—stronger when we come together in person again.

Be well. Stay safe. And let us know how LeadingAge can help you.