The Square
News and perspectives from Covia.

During one of his daily briefings, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York told listeners to be “socially distanced but spiritually connected.” Covia’s Spiritual Care team is responding to the challenge of the COVID-19 stay at home orders with creative solutions to keep residents spiritually connected during holy days and every day.

Holy Days

Since gathering in person is not a possibility, the chaplains have found new ways to offer Holy Week and Passover services for their communities.

At Spring Lake Village, Chaplains Jacquie Robb and Jeanne Forte have worked with a member of the Wellness staff to record services for Palm Sunday and Easter that are broadcast on the community’s internal TV channel. Bulletins are distributed to interested residents so that all can participate, including singing along with favorite hymns.

For Passover, Chaplain Meredith Cahn worked with Well Connected to develop a virtual Seder that will be offered live on Zoom on Thursday, April 9. Residents from all Covia communities as well as seniors living elsewhere can register to join by calling Well Connected at 877-797-7299 or emailing coviaconnections@covia.org. Cahn also created a coronavirus-related haggadah, available for all participants. The St. Paul’s Towers community in Oakland, where Cahn serves as chaplain, is creating individual Seder plates that will be delivered to the apartments of residents who wish to participate.

At San Francisco Towers, Chaplain Hans Hoch is assisting the community’s Passover celebration with Congregation Emanu-El via Zoom and offering opening remarks and welcome. He is also broadcasting Sunday services through the community’s CCTV.

Every day

Chaplains have been turning to phone calls and other ways of reaching out and staying connected. Chaplain Cahn from St. Paul’s Towers says, “I provide one-on-one support over every remote medium I can.” Chaplain Kevin Philips from Canterbury Woods says, “I make several calls each day and so far have reached over 80% of the community in meaningful conversations.” “People need connection; they are so appreciative of calls,” says Chaplain Robb at Spring Lake Village.

The chaplains have also adapted to using Zoom as a way to offer services and keep connected – including helping residents learn the new system. Chaplain Cahn, who had surgery in early March, says, “Since I was expecting to be on medical leave convalescing from surgery, this has happened at a perfect time to work remotely. As soon as the shelter in place orders came, I was able to start working with our amazing IT staff member, Eric Powell, to introduce residents to Zoom.”

Using Zoom provides opportunities for residents to meet for services and spiritual practices. Chaplain Forte, drawing from her Episcopal tradition, is offering an evening Compline service daily by Zoom for residents at Spring Lake Village while Chaplain Robb is offering a weekly meditation class through the Zoom application. “Fourteen people came to our first meeting!” Robb reports.

Along with providing spiritual care for residents, the chaplains are a resource for Covia’s employees as well. Many of the chaplains are providing daily emails with reflections, spiritual practices, and other resources for their colleagues. Chaplain Philips from Canterbury Woods shared his own poem, Strange Days, to emphasize that “There is nothing that can keep our hearts apart.” Another day, Lily Godsoe, chaplain at Webster House, shared a simple breathing meditation practice to help reduce stress.

Laura Darling, VP of Spiritual Care for Covia, sends a daily email to staff at Support Services (Covia’s administrative offices in Walnut Creek – now all working remotely), Community Services, and Covia’s Affordable Communities. “One of the things I hope to do with these spiritual care emails is provide a real range of ways to connect with your spirit,” she said in one of her emails, which included a link to a 10-minute meditation video, a downloadable sheet for coloring, and the link to a blog post providing support and encouragement. “These emails are meant to provide support for people who come from a wide range of religious backgrounds, including those with no religious background at all,” Darling says. “This pandemic is affecting all of us, and we need to support one another in all kinds of ways.”

Advice from the Chaplains

When asked what they would say to help those who are socially distancing take care of their spirit, the chaplains had this advice:

Chaplain Jacquie Robb, Spring Lake Village: Give yourself plenty of rest and good food; don’t worry so much about getting things accomplished but give yourself time to BE with yourself and connect with others.

Try to Zoom with each other and do things together online. For instance, I’m watching a play that is offered online with a friend from Maine. Find a routine. Keep moving your body. Pray/meditate. Ask God the hard questions (Where are you in all this?) and listen for a response.

Chaplain Jeanne Forte, Spring Lake Village: Be gentle with yourself. There will be time, when this pandemic is over, for ‘amendment of life’ things. Now is not the time to launch into demanding life changes. Keep things simple. Keep things kind. Be generous with yourself.​

Chaplain Meredith Cahn, St. Paul’s Towers: Be in regular contact with loved ones – daily, or even more often, using every medium possible. Help your parent/grandparent/whoever get on Zoom or Skype or Facetime. Exercise, eat healthy, limit news intake. Laugh when you can find it. Dance. Recognize and name your fears, and see if you can let them go.

Chaplain Kevin Philips, Canterbury Woods: Food for the spirit comes in so many forms and by so many conduits. For those I know who have faith in something, I will encourage tapping in to that. For those who are able, I encourage walks or just sitting on a bench somewhere on our beautiful campus. For those with only a phone, I suggest calling up old friends. For those with Zoom, I pass on information about how to connect with others. For those without Zoom who have a computer, I encourage them to download it and give them the information they need to do that. 

I hear myself say to people who are angry or having some other ego dystonic feeling:  “Don’t judge your feelings. That will only make it worse. Feelings are feelings and don’t have to be rational. Just accept that you are feeling that way and let it pass through you.” 

Image: Chaplains at a weekly Zoom meeting. 

Spiritual Care expands far beyond providing Bible studies or religious services. Spiritual wellness – one of the eight dimensions of wellness – is an important part of Covia’s mission to support well-being for the whole person.

The goal of Covia’s spiritual care programs is to enhance the quality of life of every person by building and deepening community, encouraging meaningful connections, supporting people through the grieving process, and providing resources for a purposeful life at any age or stage.

Each Covia Life Plan and Multi-level community has a chaplain who is available to support those of all faiths or none. Rabbi Meredith Cahn, Chaplain at St. Paul’s Towers, explains, “My job as a chaplain is to help people in their spiritual work—dealing with the emotional and spiritual aspects of aging and loss, dealing with relationship that might be challenging, with forgiveness, or even coping with the way the world is right now. I am there to be present at moments of joy and sorrow and in between.”

Covia strives to provide an environment that fosters spiritual well-being for residents, their families and for Covia’s staff. Covia’s guiding principles are deeply informed by basic values of spiritual well-being, including the concepts of welcome, inclusion, social justice and grace; treating one another with respect, civility and dignity; embracing individuality and diversity; and serving with integrity.

Spiritual Care programs and services at Covia do not seek to proselytize or convert, but to support and respect all in their beliefs or traditions. Chaplain Jacquie Robb at Spring Lake Village says, “Most residents have no idea what a chaplain does, so there is usually some hesitation to seeing me. I want them to acclimate to my presence and assure them I’m not ‘selling’ anything. In my mind I hold the idea of a village vicar who is most often a friend but with the added benefit of being able to share matters in confidence, free from judgment.”

The Chaplains work closely with their Life Enrichment department to provide a wide range of programs meeting a variety of spiritual needs. For example, at St. Paul’s Towers, “We have non-denominational ‘sacred time’ on Monday mornings, integrating residents from all floors as well as staff; we have a weekly meeting to discuss the events of the world—to be able to mourn or celebrate or holler or vent about Charlottesville (and the racism and antisemitism it spotlighted), #MeToo, climate change, et cetera. We have just started a widow and widower’s grief group to help residents who have lost their partner. And we have groups on spiritually healthy aging.” Other communities have had programs such as a group discussion on Handel’s Messiah, the Blessing of the Animals on the Feast of St. Francis, a celebration of the Solstice, meditation groups, and much more – including, yes, Bible study! In addition, religious services are available for those from a range of traditions.

It’s not only the communities that offer Spiritual Care programs. Well Connected also offers many opportunities for participants from around the country to meet for support, reflection, meditation, a daily gratitude group, and other spiritual care programs through their phone- or online-based programs. Once each session, Laura Darling, Senior Director of Communication and Spiritual Care, offers a memorial service so that participants can commemorate Well Connected members who have died – an event that is powerful, even for those who have never met. “I’m consistently moved by the way community is built through Well Connected,” says Darling. “It doesn’t matter that they have never met face to face. The relationships among the participants are strong and real, and it’s important that they get a chance to remember and celebrate their friends.”

Above all, Spiritual Care is grounded in kindness and compassion. “Spiritual care provides individual support to people going through their own challenges feeling the love and care they need,” says Rabbi Meredith.

“Spiritual care encompasses so much more than religion and religious services. It encompasses people’s hopes and dreams, their desire for good connections and for a life of meaning. It can help people deal with the real challenges of aging and loss, in a language that meets people where they are.”