Canada’s bishops issued a pastoral letter Tuesday expressing concern for senior citizens who receive inadequate institutional care, a situation that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“They Still Bring Forth Fruit in Old Age: A Lesson on Caring in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic”, which bears the date July 1, was released by the executive committee of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops July 14.

In the letter, the bishops recognized the difficulties faced by many elderly persons during the pandemic, especially isolation and neglect. However, they said this pandemic has also provided a valuable lesson on human dignity.

“The pandemic can, in many ways and for many people, serve as an important reminder of the inherent dignity of human life, its meaning and what should be most important in life. No matter the degree of isolation and privation each of us may have experienced so far in this crisis, there are lessons to be learned about the need for courage, determination, hope and steadfastness,” they said.

“One of these important lessons, especially for the younger generation, is that well before COVID-19, the elderly and the disabled were frequently excluded or forgotten, not only by society in general, but in many cases by their faith communities and even by their loved ones.”

The bishops said the elderly have faced a deficiency of mental and physical health as well as a  disregard to their emotional, spiritual, and relational needs. Disturbingly, they said, these situations had existed prior to COVID-19.

“What emerged at the beginning of the pandemic were the conditions in long-term care facilities and similar institutions that were particularly disturbing, as government and healthcare authorities began to acknowledge,” they said.

“That many elderly endured weeks practically in solitude to avoid contracting the virus even from caregivers, and that many died without either the presence of family members or the comfort and strength of the Church’s Sacraments and pastoral care is heartbreaking.”

According to reports by caregivers and military personnel providing military assistance, the bishops said, there have been numerous accounts of neglected bedside care and feeding, unattended hygienic needs, and insufficient living spaces.

They also said the problem is worsened by inadequate staffing, including too few employees, poor training, unsatisfactory compensation, and “many of whom were working in multiple institutions.”

They pointed to the words of Pope Francis, who has warned against a “throwaway culture.” They said, more often than not, elderly people are discarded. They emphasized the crucial role of the Church to care for the vulnerable, sick, and elderly.

As people have found creative ways to share the burden of the pandemic, the bishops said this troubling time has also been a source of hope and new opportunity. They said it has brought a fresh awareness of society’s limitations and perspectives on the needs of humanity.

“Our hope is that Canadians will gain greater awareness as to how our culture prioritizes the freedom, desires and choice of individuals, and regrettably also tends to neglect the rights and responsibilities that promote the common good of society and the dignity of every person, especially the elderly,” they said.

“This begins with respecting and protecting, in peace and justice, the fundamental and inalienable rights of each human person, as well as their authentic development and social well-being in the entire community.”

Assured of God’s presence, Catholics “can move forward in confidence, generosity, gratitude and prudence as our governments and healthcare authorities ease the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’,” the bishops said. “This will entail reassessing our priorities, taking an honest look at our values and lifestyle. We must let ourselves be challenged by the Lord’s calling and the present needs of our brothers and sisters.”

“As we slowly return to a more normal way of life, let us not forget the elderly among us who still have so much wisdom to impart, faith to share, stories to tell and joys to offer. Let us create space in our hearts, homes, families and communities to honour them and truly care for them in their weakness and their many needs. Let us welcome their unique giftedness in building a world which is more human, loving, generous, forgiving, and radiant with God’s grace.”