In a recent discussion, there was this nice note from regular commenter and friend Ted.
Mike, I’ve been wondering how the crisis has affected you and your work as hospice chaplain. Will there be a blog post about it?
A lot of your work must be in hospitals and nursing homes, which are now off-limits to you. Are you able to connect with patients and family members by phone or electronically? Do you meet with people for a walk?
The tragedy is that there must be an increased need for your service, at a time when your hands are tied. So far in this state, more than one-half of the covid-19 deaths have been in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. I think the figures are similar nation-wide.
It’s OK to feel frustrated. And it sounds like you need a chaplain, too. We’re praying for you.
I’ve thought several times of giving a report of what it’s like to be me and to be a hospice chaplain in this pandemic. I’ll start with the work first. That’s easier.
In short, my work has not changed much. Most of my patients live at home with their families, and the majority of those families have not been victims of the virus. Our team simply takes extra precautions — the usual stuff: we are more attentive to handwashing, we wear masks on every visit, etc. In fact, for a time things have been slower. The chaplains and social workers have not been making as many visits, but have relied more on phone contacts.
With regard to our hospital and nursing home patients, not much has changed there either. Chaplains in our hospitals have not been allowed in the Covid units yet, but that mostly affects the hospital chaplains, not we who work in hospice. We’ve had no inpatient Covid patients on our hospice service. The nursing homes have a variety of rules about visits, but I have not been prevented from seeing any of my patients in those settings. This then involves a bit more work calling families and keeping them updated, because they do not have access.
I’ve had little fear for myself. I’ve not been conscious of being in many vulnerable situations in my work. I am careful and the public places where I work have clear policies and procedures in place. Homes, of course, are not always controlled environments, but our families are respectful of our safety. The one situation that is a crap shoot is the death visit. These can draw large family gatherings and they can take place in confined spaces. If I end up getting the virus, it may well be because of one of these visits, no matter how careful I try to be.
But like I’ve said, I have not felt afraid of contracting Covid-19. I know that I am technically in an at-risk group, being over 60 years old. But I am generally healthy and know that I have access to excellent care. I wish everyone could say that.
The pandemic and its stay-at-home orders have affected me much more personally.
We all have besetting sins, and a primary one for me is the sin of acedia. The Online Medical Dictionary (2000) defines acedia as “a mental syndrome, the chief features of which are listlessness, carelessness, apathy, and melancholia.” In her book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, Kathleen Norris quotes the ascetic Evagrius, who describes a monk with acedia like this:
…when he reads…yawns plenty and easily falls into sleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. His eyes wander from the book. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a little. He then wastes his time hanging on to the end of words, counts the pages, ascertains how the book is made, finds fault with the writing and the design. Finally he just shuts it and uses it as a pillow. Then he falls into a sleep not too deep, because hunger wakes his soul up and he begins to concern himself with that. (p. 5)
Norris goes on to say that “It is a risky business to train oneself…to embrace a daily routine that mirrors eternity in its changelessness.” This is why acedia was and is such a besetting sin for contemplatives and those with certain monastic vocations. I have found it to be a problem in the structureless environment that Covid-19 sheltering-in-place has forced upon us. It has been a lifelong challenge for me to create structure and routine for myself. And now I find myself in a daily life that is wholly amorphous, unable to provide shape and form to my nebulous spirit.
The energy it took to write that last paragraph was enormous.
I think I’ll go get something to eat.