Inside an Upper East Side nursing home on a September Sunday, Mimi Weinstein, who organizes and leads a weekly worship service there, bounced from resident to resident. She handed out bulletins and greeted people by name while shaking a tambourine. Two dozen residents showed up for the service, filling the activity room. Weinstein’s husband, Jerry, sat down at a baby grand piano, the top propped up with a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and started playing worship songs.
When a volunteer announced the first song of the service, one resident shouted at the top of his lungs, “Amen sister, Amen!”
This same neighborhood was bleak in 2020, with empty streets and mobile morgues outside of overwhelmed hospitals. In the US, over 200,000 long-term care residents and staff have died from COVID-19, according to a count from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In five states, they accounted for more than half of COVID-19 deaths up through 2021. But since the vaccine rollout, they make up a much smaller portion of COVID-19 deaths in the US.
All across the country, nursing home residents didn’t have visitors other than staff for months, and sometimes more than a year. In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services banned visitors from nursing home facilities, and administrators have dealt with regularly changing guidance on visitation since.
Cleopatra Mullings, 84, who resides at the Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New York, didn’t see her son Gene Mullings for a year.
“I think about it sometimes, but I try to push that thought back,” she said from her wheelchair, with her son sitting beside her on a Sunday in September. They were participating in the weekly worship service put on by volunteers from Hope for New York, an organization that partners churches with other organizations serving the city.
Nursing home residents would like to forget the isolation of the previous two years, but the new norms of postpandemic life mean that a few infections might close a home to visitors for a week, a month, or more. Before the pandemic, nursing home residents dealt with social isolation, but if norms from the pandemic lockdowns continue, they could be more isolated than ever. Some churches and ministries are responding to this new reality by expanding their work in nursing homes.
An October 2020 survey of nursing home residents by healthcare nonprofit Altarum found residents’ activities inside homes (including religious services), their visits, and trips outside all dropped precipitously since the pandemic restrictions.
Participation in three or more weekly activities inside nursing homes dropped from 58 percent of residents to 21 percent. After the pandemic, 76 percent of residents said they felt lonelier than usual, and 87 percent said they ate alone in their room. Before the pandemic, 68 percent said they ate in a dining room.
Another survey from January 2021 of residents’ families reported that, when they were able to finally return to visit, they found their loved ones in extreme mental decline. Residents wept, stared vacantly, hallucinated, or stopped walking. Some nursing home staff reported that residents had stopped eating.
“Although the regulations were deemed essential to COVID-19 containment, the continuation of this lockdown for a prolonged time has resulted in potentially irreversible physical, cognitive, psychological and functional decline,” said one 2020 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, which focuses on geriatrics.
Ministries want to be careful about seniors’ health while also attend to the deep loneliness they are finding in these facilities, as well as the exhaustion and stress among nursing home staff.
“The isolation is, without question, devastating to the souls of the people,” said Bill Goodrich. He leads God Cares, a 30-year-old organization to support about 10,000 nursing home ministry volunteers. He has been visiting residents since September of last year and says, “They’re numb… They’ve turned off. They just exist. …They’re not dying from the one thing, but they’re dying from the other thing.”
The pandemic did bring attention to residents’ plight. Ministries are trying to return relationships and joy in homes in creative ways, like enlisting elementary classes to write letters if a facility goes into lockdown. The window visits that took off during the pandemic have continued when the visitor or resident is sick. Homes and ministries are better at using technology for outside connection, with Zoom Bible studies and Facetime calls.
On the Upper East Side, Gene Mullings has visited his mother every day since the facility incrementally opened up. Visitors at this facility take a rapid test upon arrival and wear masks.
“She’s a trooper,” Mullings said, wrapping his arm around his mom.
Cleopatra Mullings’s facility has a host of activities now, and she is signed up for all of them: jazz, karaoke, a reading group, bingo, and Sunday worship. The Mullings family is part of a Lutheran church and the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn.
This Sunday, the scheduled preacher for the day got stuck in a malfunctioning subway train, so Mimi Weinstein gave a brief message. She read the biblical text the pastor had chosen, John 5:19–23, and then asked the room, “What are some miracles Jesus did?”
“Healed the blind!” said one resident.
“Raised the dead!” said another.
Weinstein read John 5:20 again. She talked about Jesus being the vine, and his followers the branches: “We are getting all the nutrients we need by the vine. And we can bear fruit. Are we loving? Are we peaceful? Are we patient? Are we doing good? Are we gentle with one another?”
She went on: “There’s more we need than food and clothing and entertainment. There’s something more we need for nourishment, which we get by sticking with Jesus.”