As COVID-19 spreads, will we be more like the saints?

How to help your neighbor during the pandemic

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

How would the saints act if they were in our position? The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has certainly caused various reactions – some have chosen to monitor the situation while others have fled to the stores to try to stock up on toilet paper and frozen foods.

There’s no doubt that the latter act out of care for their loved ones and want to make sure they have the necessary means in case the worst happens. Yet, as Christians, we are called to something greater. The problem is that in the type of behavior previously described, there’s a limited vision of the human person, of the family and of our mission as Christians. The human person and the family are, by essence, social. They cannot become isolated from everything or everyone else. We clearly depend on one another.

While the care and safety of our family is our primary mission, will we, as Christians, retrieve into ourselves or will we choose to look outwardly, love our neighbor as ourselves and serve the common good?

Therefore, in these times, Christian should rightfully ask: “What’s my role?” “What should I do?” “What is God calling me to do?”

They’re important questions that guide us to the true and the good, and lead us on a path of holiness, like the saints before us.

So, to answer these questions, let us look to the example of a few saints who have faced similar or worse circumstances.

THE EXAMPLE OF THE SAINTS

The great thing about the saints is that they participated in caring for others, each according to his own position. If we want to serve others during this time, we must first know our position in life and act accordingly.

St. Charles Borromeo | Persons in Authority


The Archbishop of Milan represents those in authority who have a large number of people under their care.

Milan not only faced a famine and plague outbreak from 1576 to 1577, but also the consequences of the cowardice of their governor and many nobility, who fled the city as things got out of control. Thankfully, Archbishop Borromeo, the other figure who exerted authority in the city, took the responsibility to fight the plague. He issued guidelines to prevent the further spread of the plague, organized volunteers and medical experts at hospitals to best tend to the poor and sick, and used all of his personal resources and other resources available to provide food for the hungry, feeding from 60 to 70 thousand people daily.

So, for people with authority, their mission is to implement the appropriate measures to prevent the spread of disease, to tend for those under their care and to provide the necessary means for their survival.

St. Rocco and St. Damien of Molokai | Medical Professionals

Both of these saints represent those who are in a position to help more directly tend to those in need, mainly doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.

These saints provide an opportunity for reflection, as they risked their lives by tending to those who were infected. They did not serve the needy thinking that their faith would save them from getting infected, rather, they did it knowing that they could very well die doing it.

St. Rocco is an example of someone who miraculously survived the plague in Italy during the 14th century. He travelled throughout Italy healing people and was himself miraculously healed from his sores.

St. Damian is another example. He traveled to a Hawaiian leper colony to tend to the sick. He found the place was poorly maintained and that immorality and misbehavior were prominent. In his years of service, Father Damien contracted leprosy and eventually died from it.

For medical professionals the example and intercession of both of these saints can be of great help.

The saints next door | The rest of us

But the question lingers: Where is my place if I’m not a medical professional or a person in authority?

This example is best reflected by the great number of saints who we probably don’t know about, those saints who served their families and their neighbors with love, and followed the just measures implemented by people in authority for the common good.

We are called to be those “saints next door,” as Pope Francis said. But how?

While everybody else is looking to stock up on what they think they need, we can ask to see what our neighbors need. Of course, all of these actions should be done with the appropriate precautions, so as to not contribute to the spread of the virus, which, in itself, is a great contribution to the common good.

  • Pray for your neighbor and for all of those who are suffering due to the current situation.
  • Offer to babysit for your neighbor if you see they need it.
  • Offer to bring a home-cooked meal.
  • Ask them how they are doing and if they are stressed about the current situation.
  • Ask if they have any material needs.
  • Exchange phone numbers so you can check up on them if they get sick or in case there’s an emergency.
  • Stay home if you’re sick. This may be the hardest one for many people but staying home can be an act of charity, humility and penance, knowing that you’re protecting others from also getting sick. That’s the best favor you can do to them.

As we continue in our Lenten practices, let us make this an opportunity to examine our lives and see how, according to our state and position in life, we can look beyond ourselves and follow the example of Christ and the saints.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.