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COVID-19 has taught us many things, but for me one of the most painful lessons was that our society has a long way to go when it comes to treating our elders with love and dignity. When the pandemic took hold in Canada, many watched in horror as it swept mercilessly through long-term care (LTC) homes. Nearly 70 percent of all COVID deaths in Canada were in LTC homes, compared to the international average of 41 percent in such institutions.

We all heard the heartbreaking reports of residents being isolated in their rooms for weeks on end, receiving minimal care, in some cases suffering from neglect. Care workers were stretched to the limit, risking their own health each day they spent at work. Meanwhile, families who were desperate to see their loved ones were not allowed to visit for months.

Primary reasons for the devastation in LTC homes were chronic underfunding, insufficient infection control and protective equipment, understaffing and low wages. The virus spread like wildfire as workers went from part-time job to part-time job (with no benefits or sick days) between LTC homes. Although the situation caught many people off guard, it shouldn’t have. We have been cutting corners for decades in LTC, and this is the result.

Pope Francis has expressed great care and compassion for all people during COVID, and that includes our elders. His words come from the heart of our faith, which reminds us that every person is made in God’s image and has inherent dignity. I was moved when, in January, he established World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. It will take place each year on the fourth Sunday of July, around the feast of Jesus’ grandparents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. This year’s theme is “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:30).

We have had National Grandparents Day (the first Sunday after Labour Day) for years, but that’s a secular event and is not international in scope. World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly, on the other hand, is an opportunity for Catholics around the globe to pray for our elders, invite their participation in our lives and value their wisdom and living legacy.

In a video of the Pope’s message for this inaugural Day, he speaks directly to those being honoured, saying: “The whole Church is close to you, and cares about you, loves you and does not want to leave you alone.” He adds that elders have a vocation “to preserve our roots, to pass on the faith to the young, and to care for the little ones.”

After 16 months of pandemic, and in the sombre light of the deaths from the virus of so many elders in Canadian LTC homes, World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly is a bright spot that we can all get behind. Honouring our elders, thanking them for their many contributions to our lives, keeping them in our prayers, and petitioning our governments for better policies and funding for those who need home care or long-term care as they age are just a few ways to mark this occasion. How will you celebrate?

Anne Louise Mahoney is Managing Editor of Novalis. She is the editor of Looking to the Laity: Reflections on Where the Church Can Go from Here.

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