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As they reopen, congregations grapple with including seniors

Each Sunday, Larry Little and his wife, Mary, get ready for church. They dress casually, fill two tumblers with water, climb into their golf cart and drive two miles to The Grove, a grassy field next to their church.

There they find a parking place, turn off the engine and settle in for a live service in front of a Jumbotron and a stage.

The Littles, who live in a retirement community called The Villages, about an hour’s drive northwest of Orlando, Florida, are among the lucky few.

Since mid-March, when state shutdowns forced churches, synagogues and mosques to close amid the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have had to mostly rely on online worship services.

But Live Oaks Community Church has been able to offer continuous outdoor services — one on Saturday and two on Sunday — with dozens, sometimes hundreds, arriving via their golf carts.

“The only negative is that you don’t have much interaction with the rest of the congregation,” said Larry Little, 77. “Our golf carts are 6 feet apart and they don’t want us outside the golf cart.”

For many, if not most, older congregants living in colder climates or with no access to outdoor services, such options are a luxury.

Unable to find spiritual sustenance or the comforts of community, many are isolated and lonely. They may struggle with using the technology required for viewing online services or connecting virtually with family, friends and community members.

“It’s becoming more of a challenge to figure out how we minister to, and with, these older adults,” said Missy Buchanan, a writer and speaker from Rockwall, Texas, with a focus on older adults.

Some congregations are making phone calls and writing letters to older members. Others have bought them tablets and are teaching the least technologically savvy how to connect to online platforms.

Now, as states begin loosening lockdown restrictions and churches contemplate how to reopen safely, clergy and other religious leaders face difficult decisions when it comes to their senior members.

For older people, there’s a cruel reality to those reopenings.

Mounting evidence suggests houses of worship are probably among the riskiest places for older people. Transmission is much more likely indoors where lots of people come into close contact and where droplets with viral particles might linger in the air for as long as eight minutes. Multiple coronavirus cases across the country have been linked to people attending church and synagogue services or events.

Older Americans are also among the most likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19. Eight out of 10 coronavirus deaths reported in the U.S. have been among adults 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Many older people like the Littles may not see the insides of a church or synagogue for a very long time.

“When churches regather, older people may be the last to go back,” said Amy Hanson, an instructor in the gerontology department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has a consulting ministry to help churches engage older adults.

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