In a World of Heightened Isolation, the Elderly Count on One Smiling Face

By Olivia Schwab
Hottytoddy.com intern
orschwab@go.olemiss.edu

For many, it is impossible to imagine being stuck at home forever with nowhere to go, but this quarantined lifestyle is nothing new for nursing home residents. Through volunteer work at Oxford Health and Rehab, Dr. William Schenck, UM’s Associate Director of the Croft Institute, has seen first-hand what it’s like to live in isolation long before COVID-19 affected the world.

With questions about when the state of Mississippi will officially reopen following shelter-in-place orders across the country, many are eager to escape the frustration and loneliness that this pandemic has caused. As several begin returning to the streets, nursing home residents will remain in place, still isolated from society in large long-term care facilities.

Dr. Schenck. Photo provided.

“For all elderly, especially those who live in nursing homes, loneliness and social isolation is a huge problem,” Schenck said. “One thing we try to do by visiting the nursing homes is break down the social isolation and just connect with people.”

As an undergraduate student at Boston College, Schenck recognized the need to serve the elderly through volunteer opportunities with the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Christian organization focused on prayer, communicating the Gospel, service to the poor and service to peace.

“I had gotten to a point in my faith where I was definitely inspired by the Gospel’s call to do more to respond to the needs of the poor,” Schenck said. “I didn’t have a good way of responding to it until I found the Community of Sant’Egidio.”

The community’s friendship with the elderly began in the suburbs of Rome in 1972 when they realized that the biggest illness among the elderly was solitude. Recognizing their hardships, Sant’Egidio fostered relationships with the elderly and worked to add more meaning to their lives.

Photo provided.

After participating in Sant’Egidio’s work with the elderly in both Italy and Boston, Schenck moved to Oxford, Mississippi, a new town facing the same problem. Stumbling upon a local nursing home, Schenck decided to carry on his volunteer work about once a week at Oxford Health and Rehab, a place extremely dependent on the work of volunteers.

“We rely a lot on volunteers,” Activities Director Karen Vanwinkle said. “A lot of residents don’t have families, so volunteers step in as family members to do things like visit them and remember them on birthdays, just things your family would typically do.”

Through years of work at nursing homes, Schenck has witnessed several instances of elderly being without families. Schenck recalls one man in particular with a difficult life who had been isolated from his family for years but was given hope and positivity through his newfound friendship with Schenck and Schenck’s family.

“Sometimes people in nursing homes have hard lives and are alienated from their families,” Schenck said. “We really got to know one man, and he even got to know my kids. It was like God put us in his life to almost give him a second chance to have a positive relationship.”

These positive relationships sometimes come with hardship for volunteers because nursing homes often deal with frailty, illness and death. Schenck explained that there is always a sense of feeling like you cannot completely help someone’s situation.

“When you work with the elderly, being in the situation where you have friends pass away is concretely one of the hardest things,” Schenck said. “Short of that, there’s a lot of illness and a sense of feeling like you can’t make everything better.”

Despite the difficulty, there’s truly a special feeling associated with volunteering at a nursing home. In fact, being able to connect and form friendships with the elderly is not only a privilege and a blessing to Schenck, but also the highlight of his week.

“It is wonderful that the gentleman I visit is happy to see me and that I am happy to see him,” Schenck said. “It’s honestly the highlight of my week being able to connect with them. The friendship and support go two ways, and I get a lot out of the experience.”

Society is called to bring life inside the nursing home because those inside never leave the facility. Schenck hopes that the Oxford community will understand the need to protect both the physical and mental health of the elderly, for it’s something society as a whole is responsible for.

“The key thing is to recognize the dignity of these people,” Schenck said. “Every person has a story, and you have to recognize that. Humans are built for connection, and elderly are the same. If we build a society that throws away the elderly, that’s where we are going to end up.”

To learn more about helping people on the margins, visit santegidio.org.