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Celebrating Christmas in an Assisted Living Facility

Photo of Debbra StephensDebbra Stephens | Bio

Debbra Stephens

Transplanted in the South from her home state of Michigan, this suburban mom-of-two loves her Lord Jesus and His wonderful Word. A dedicated student of the Word, she loves to share what she learns in the classroom, at events, and on the page—dependent upon the ever-faithful Holy Spirit to turn thoughts to text. Debbra has authored four Bible studies, all published by 21st Century Christian Publishers in Nashville, Tennessee. She launched the series Advent Living Books for her seasonal daily devotionals in 2018. Debbra blogs at her website debbrastephens.com and has been published in Christian Woman Magazine.

*Editor’s Note: Debbra has worked for a dozen years as office manager at an assisted living facility. Here, she shares the unique challenges and surprising resilience she has seen among the assisted living facility residents as they face Christmas during a pandemic. 

It will be a Christmas like no other for those living in long-term care facilities. You would think that once the milestone marker as an octogenarian has been reached, there would be few surprises left in life. But that hasn’t been the case here in 2020. It’s been a year full of surprises. And it seems Christmas will be no different.

Everyone has had some sense of isolation this year—having to shelter away to keep one another well. People have felt disconnected, as we struggle to safely keep our distance. That is especially the case in trying to protect the elderly, the most vulnerable population among us. Families have been separated, either because of the miles between them or because they reside in facilities that have been in lockdown since March.

These families miss one another deeply. And the holiday season accentuates that longing.

There is a long list of good reasons to entrust the care of an aging parent into the hands of another. It is never an easy decision. But it’s one made out of love and compassion, and a desire to do what is best for their wellbeing. Those reasons are heightened in a pandemic. Adults who have to work, raise school-age children, or care for their own grandchildren, factor in added risks for potential exposure to the aging.

While many facilities have had surges in cases, that is not always the case. Facilities provide added protection—shielding residents away from harm. Of equal, or even greater, concern is for the elderly living alone. Often, out of sight means out of mind. They can easily be overlooked or even forgotten. They are truly isolated and yet need someone to look after them. It is an undeniable fact that lack of a social network for support and interaction causes a decline in mental and physical health.

People were made for community. It brings courage to the soul. And where community is lacking, especially where there is need, people are at a definite disadvantage.

Assisted living facilities provide that community. Residents, living among their peers—with shared life experiences and an empathy for their current life stage—often become more than community. They become family.

Many residents of retirement communities are members of the Greatest Generation. They have endured many grueling hardships and are a rather resilient lot. They know how to make the best of difficult situations. These residents experienced the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And they did so in community. Anne Railsback, resident at the facility where I work, explained;

“I am very happy in my home because the people are people who have been where I have been. We know what we’re going through because we’re going through it together. All the tough times you go through makes a spot in your heart to get you through other tough times. You learn and grow each time you go through hard times.”

These residents have a hope and a joy in the face of difficulties because of the ones they have already survived. “You learn to be thankful in everything,” she said with a quiet confidence.

Assisted living facility owner and administrator, Dan Day, had this to say: “There is value in being surrounded by others in the same circumstance. It’s a sort of therapy because they are in it together and can lift one another up.”

Resident Gail Bowman added, “It’s good for us to be together, seeing others where you are. We laugh and are kept busy with fun activities. We can still hope because we know where our care comes from and can know what to expect tomorrow.”

Because they are limited in the ways they can connect with family, it has taken a concerted and creative effort to make those connections. Thankfully, technology has served a big part in that. When our doors were open, our halls were bustling with visitors and volunteers. And our walls were bursting with family over the holidays.

This year, we had to do our feasting through a Facebook Live event. And, where Christmases past were busy with parties, entertainers, and carolers, we are now singing through paned windows and gathering in Zoom sessions.

The residents at our facility celebrate the season with a durable faith, hope, joy, and peace—all of which came with the birth of the Christ. It is a gift of God. But it also comes in knowing they are being cared for. They see that God is providing for their protection and wellbeing. They also have the added blessing of being in community.

This generation knows what it means to endure seasons of hardship.

For those in our facility, they are facing this pandemic together—with a resolve to find the good in the hard. They gather together for advent devotions, and sing songs in joy, because Christmas is something to be celebrated in community. So, come Christmas Day, though separated from loved ones, they will still be among those they consider family.

(For more from Debbra, visit debbrastephens.com.)