Last month, the Evangelical Alliance and member organisation Faith in Later Life brought together a group of organisations working with older people (including care homes), church representatives and academics, to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on older people and what the church can do in response. Here are some of the key messages that arose from the roundtable.

Changing the narrative

The Bible gives us a high view of older people (Leviticus 19:32, Proverbs 16:31). By contrast, our society often sees old age as a negative thing, and ageism has only increased over time. According to the World Health Organization, a low opinion of old age risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as this negative perception of age itself decreases life expectancy and quality (). The church can challenge this negative narrative.

This challenge begins with the language we may use. Our words ought to show how we value the dignity of every human life, and how we recognise the contribution that those of all ages can make. We should resist making easy or dismissive generalisations about older people – they are a diverse group, inside or outside our churches. 

Participants at our roundtable emphasised how important it was to recognise the autonomy of older people, by working with them, listening to their views, and treating them as adults. In classifying them as a vulnerable group, we risk seeing ourselves as doing things for’ them rather than with’ them. But with this change in language comes a change in mindset that will impact all we do. 

Fear and isolation

We heard how the church needs to resist the corrosive impact of fear on everyone in society – especially on older people. The way that the risks of COVID-19 have been communicated during this pandemic has not always been helpful or clear. This has led to widespread fear that will take some time to dissipate, particularly for those labelled as vulnerable and told to shield’. The church can offer a model response to this fear, by being transparent about risks and precautions as we come out of lockdown, and by helping people overcome fear as normal life returns. 

Even before the crisis, tackling isolation and loneliness were key priorities in work with older people. However, this danger is even more significant now, with lockdown closing many opportunities to interact with others. Vulnerable people could be shielding or isolating themselves for some time, either by government instruction or by choice. While wider society will focus on life returning to normal for those willing to go out, churches will be required to model listening to the voice of the shielded’ – even as their usual ministry may resume. This may mean nominating a staff member to represent this perspective for as long as necessary. 

Ministry and accessibility

The work of chaplains in contexts such as hospitals and care homes has been vital. Religious staff were recognised as key workers by the Government in part for this reason. However, many chaplains and volunteers are themselves over 70 and may need to shield for the sake of their own health. Along with charitable organisations, churches will be required to reflect on how to redeploy and serve such volunteers and keep up the activities that rely on them. The accessibility of volunteer roles will need more thought in the future. 

The wider use of technology in the light of isolation also presents a mixed picture for older people. On the one hand, online services and conversations with loved ones are an important way of preventing complete isolation. However, technology is not the same as face-to-face meeting, and there is some evidence that online resources are less accessible to older people. For example, according to the Office for National Statistics24 per cent of over 65s had not used the internet in three months . In addition, in research commissioned by Tearfund, there was a gap between the number of 18 – 34s accessing online services (34 per cent) and those over 55 doing the same (19 per cent) . A new reliance on technology will need to go together with new ideas on how to make this more accessible – perhaps be offering lessons or schemes that provide access to devices. 

Working with government

It would be advantageous for local authorities to work closely with churches in responding to need, and the great contribution of the church in all sorts of areas has been noted, particularly in the area of work with older people. Some church projects are even eligible for local authority funding. For more on working with local authorities, see the Christians in Parliament APPG and Evangelical Alliance report Faith in the Community.

The pandemic has shown that we need more government action on social care. While we can all imagine ourselves needing the NHS, we don’t like to imagine ourselves needing social care, which is perhaps part of the reason why the sector risks being neglected. Now, however, there seems to be an opportunity to challenge that. In particular, we could build on the respect for carers as key workers’ and consider whether their salary, conditions and training match this high view we have had of them in the pandemic.