For the homebound, Christmas is not "the most wonderful time of the year."

In fact, every day is "a long, quiet day when you're by yourself," said Linda Banker, pastoral associate for pastoral care at St. Henry's parish in Averill Park. "People think, 'Oh, they can read; they can watch TV,' but seniors often don't see or hear as well" as they once could.

Harley McDevitt is diocesan director of pastoral care ministry through the Albany Diocesan Cemeteries office. She told The Evangelist that "the winter months are really hard on our homebound. [They're] isolated, inactive, discouraged, lonely, and some are even depressed."

Pastoral care ministers in the Albany Diocese are pleading for more people to call their parishes and volunteer to visit the elderly, ill and homebound. Several priests featured in a series of videos on the Diocese's YouTube channel said they could use the help. Clergy and laypeople agreed that the biggest problem among the elderly today is isolation.

"The reality is, we're living longer and there are more pastoral care needs all the time," said Rev. Geoffrey Burke, who is pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Latham and chaplain for retired Sisters of St. Joseph at nearby St. Joseph's Provincial House.

Already, he said in a video interview, there are five senior residences in the area covered by his parish and another under construction down the street.

Scattered seniors
"Pastoral care is important," added Rev. David Mickiewicz, pastor of St. Mary's in Oneonta, in his video interview. In rural areas of his community, "we're scattered. People are isolated. We need to go out to others who can't come in" to church.

Mrs. Banker has been doing pastoral care ministry at St. Henry's since 2000 and served other parishes before that. She said that younger generations today tend to move away from the towns where they grew up. Adult children love their parents, but are often unavailable for more than weekend or vacation visits -- especially if they have children of their own.

As a result, senior citizens "can be pretty isolated," Mrs. Banker said. "It's important for them to know their Church remembers them."

Pastoral care or "visitation" ministers try to bring "the essence of the Church" to people who can't participate anymore, she said. Sometimes, that means bringing communion, but it can also be a friendly visit just to chat. Mrs. Banker makes sure all the homebound get cards personally signed by Rev. Tom Holmes, pastor of St. Henry's -- not just at Christmas, but on other holidays, too.

Mrs. Banker recalled one parishioner whose wife was disabled: He was homebound by virtue of her illness until she passed away. For people in situations like that, volunteers call and visit, help in arranging services like Meals on Wheels if necessary and let the pastor know when a visit from him would be appreciated.

Face of parish
"You're the face of your parish," Mrs. Banker said of the visitation volunteers. "You're the face of Jesus Christ to these people. You don't have to be a paragon of virtue to do this; you just have to have a good heart."

At Christ the King parish in Westmere, Albany, pastoral care coordinator Kathy Kavanaugh arranges for meals to be delivered to homebound parishioners at Christmastime, as well as breads and cards made by children in the parish.

But more volunteers are always needed. Ms. Kavanaugh described one parishioner who recently passed away: A pastoral care volunteer had become an integral part of the woman's life, visiting once a week and, when the senior went into a nursing home, stopping by to check that she was receiving good care and speaking with family members.

At the end, the volunteer also made sure her final wishes were respected, so the woman "had a lovely funeral," Ms. Kavanaugh said.

Connection to Church
Fathers Burke and Holmes both made the point in their video interviews that pastoral care means more than visiting someone who's sick or isolated.

Establishing a connection, said Father Burke, means that, when the person dies, the parish can be there for the grieving family. Father Holmes met one young man at a parishioner's funeral who was so touched by the experience, he completed the RCIA process and joined the Catholic Church.

"It's the human contact that is important," said Mrs. Banker. "Just providing that constant knowledge that someone cares. There's no better way to spend your time" than taking an hour or two to visit someone in need.

Besides, said Father Holmes, "pastoral care ministry gets down to what we're supposed to be all about."

(Go to the Albany Diocese's channel on www.youtube.com and click on "playlists" to watch interviews with pastors and pastoral care ministers. To volunteer with pastoral care ministry, call your parish or the diocesan Pastoral Care Commission at 518-641-6818.)


Kathy Kavanaugh, pastoral care coordinator at Christ the King parish in Westmere, Albany, noted that many senior citizens are also struggling financially now.

"When they were saving for retirement, things were reasonable," she said. But costs, particularly for health care and medications, have risen so much that "unless they saved a lot -- which most of them didn't -- now they have to watch [their spending] so carefully.

"It exacerbates the isolation" when seniors are afraid to leave home because gas and outings cost more than they can afford, she said. "There are people who fall through the cracks."

Like other pastoral care ministers, Ms. Kavanaugh tries to arrange for seniors to get services they qualify for, from heating assistance to SNAP (food stamps). At this time of year, said all the pastoral care ministers interviewed, parish "giving trees" and other forms of aid are also important.
(KB)