Pandemic pastoral care

By Gordon Lambie

Last year The Record shared the story of the Reverend Wayne Beamer, who was hired to serve as Pastoral Support Minister for seniors in Richmond and the surrounding area. At the time he described a large part of the job as being to help counter isolation in the growing part of the community who are no longer able to make it out to regular church services.
How does a job based on visiting work, though, when everyone is ­confined to their homes and seniors in residences are strictly cut off from any kind of outside visit at all?
According to Beamer, the differences are not as great as one might think.
“Under normal circumstances, without the virus and in normal parish ministry, the number of people that one should go and visit; it is never, ever possible to do it all,” he said, noting that there is always an important process of discernment and prioritization about where visits are needed the most. Where an in-person visit can’t be managed, effective communicators can still do a good job of being present for their parishioners by telephone.“I’ve used the telephone to do pastoral care my entire career, it’s just that now it’s really quite concentrated because that’s all you can do.”
Although on the one hand a phone call misses out on all the nonverbal communication that can play a ­significant role in supporting a person in need, the minister said that there are still many cues a good listener can pick up from a voice-only conversation.
“You hear the stories, you hear the tone of their voice, you hear all sorts of things from which you can discern how the person is making out and what their needs are,” he said, sharing that a phone call in the time of coronavirus is not any different, structurally, from one carried out under “normal” circumstances. “There’s nothing unique about it, it is simply being with them in their sense of distress.”
If anything, it is the distress itself that is different in this time of pandemic.
“With the constituency that I work with, the anxiety is primarily about their families. Many, many, many of them have either relatives or friends who have children on the front line in the healthcare system, and this is hugely distressing,” he said. “Anxiety, really, is a very mild word for the emotions that most people are feeling around this,” Beamer added, explaining that, “people are simply apoplectic about the imminent danger to their families.”
The distress of what the minister referred to as “corona life,” versus regular life, then differs mainly in the perceived degree and imminence of the danger, and that is where Beamer said it is hard to not be able to be present in person.
“You can’t go and see them not matter what the circumstances and that, at times, is difficult,” he said, sharing that although the proverbial grape-vine is still working well for letting him know who needs a call, he still feels a desire to be able to connect more directly than he can over the phone.
One strategy that the minister said he is exploring is of trying to connect through mobile applications like Facetime or Whatsapp
“There’s an initiative I’m a part of that is trying to get cell phones into seniors’ residences,” he said. “The idea here is that there are lots of seniors who are isolated and all it would take to connect them is Wifi.”
If enough homes have wireless internet connections and enough seniors have their hands on a device that could use one of the video messaging apps, he suggested, then it would be relatively easy to bridge the visual communication gap and have a more direct access to people from whom he is currently fairly cut off, even if none of those devices are connected to a phone plan.
With seniors among the most vulnerable in this time with no vaccine, Beamer argued that already isolated individuals are looking at a much longer stretch of being cut off than others currently struggling with isolation. Finding new and effective ways to stay connected, therefore, is a matter of growing importance.
“I’d like to work on some kind of relationship where I could transcend beyond the telephone,” he said.
Anyone with a spare but functional smartphone is invited to contact Beamer at 819-578-0556.

Published in the Wednesday, April 15 edition of The Record.

Share this article