by Moira Cullings
OVERLAND PARK — It was a sight Jean Humphrey had seen many times in her life.
Father John Riley was walking up to her home for a visit.
But this time was different.
Years ago, Father Riley visited Humphrey at her home near Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Overland Park during his second year in the seminary.
The now-chancellor of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas grew up at Queen with Humphrey’s children and has known the family most of his life.
But when he walked toward Humphrey’s first-floor window at Brookdale’s memory care facility in Overland Park, where she is being treated for Alzheimer’s disease, Humphrey’s daughter Shelly Hoog didn’t know what to expect.
“Her memory is really bad,” said Hoog. “She doesn’t know her grandkids. So, when we pulled up, I’m like, ‘I don’t know if she’ll know you.’”
But the unexpected happened.
“She looked out the window and she goes, ‘Well, hi, John! You’re looking mighty priestly today,’” said Hoog.
“It was like this brief moment of clarity,” she continued. “And we both just laughed really hard.
“Those moments are getting further away.”
Father Riley administered the apostolic pardon and anointing of the sick to Humphrey, a faithful Catholic now in hospice care, through her apartment window on Sept. 20.
Connecting in creative ways
Life was difficult for Humphrey and her family before COVID-19, which has complicated things even more.
“When COVID hit, it was scary because we knew why we couldn’t go in [to see her],” said Hoog. “We didn’t want to compromise anybody in the facility or our mom.
“But it was difficult. It was like cutting off your right arm.”
Over time, the situation became more and more confusing for Humphrey.
“She just couldn’t understand why we couldn’t come in and give her a hug, [and] why we couldn’t come in and straighten up her apartment,” said Hoog.
Humphrey was used to seeing at least one of her seven children, who took turns visiting her in person, every day. A key part of her routine was going to daily Mass at Queen and she looked most forward to receiving Communion.
“That was such a big piece of her life,” said Hoog. “After every daily Mass, [pastor Father Bill Bruning] would give her a hug and say, ‘Just hang in there, Jean, you’re doing great.’
“Sometimes she would break down in his arms and cry.”
“And then, everything just abruptly stopped,” added Hoog.
Once the lockdown hit, Humphrey’s family could only visit her outside her closed window, where they communicated with her over the phone.
“And then eventually, probably two months into the lockdown, they allowed us to open up her window six inches, so then we were able to talk through the screen,” said Hoog.
The family was forced to get creative. They continued to visit Humphrey through the window, and her daughters even joined her for happy hours.
“They would get her a glass of wine inside the facility,” said Hoog. “We would open up her window, and we’d bring a speaker and we’d play music from the ’30s and ’40s. We’d have a little dance party.
“She kind of understood what was going on at first. But as the disease progressed, she had to be reminded every single time we would visit her.”
After Humphrey was recently moved to hospice care, Hoog decided it was time to reach out to Father Riley so her mom could receive the anointing of the sick.
“It was so amazing,” said Hoog. “To her, it didn’t matter that it was through a screen. That she received it was very important for her.
“And to receive it from Father Riley — somebody that she watched grow up and watched enter into the priesthood — she was touched and incredibly grateful.”
The experience of having a loved one in memory care during COVID-19 has deeply impacted Hoog and her family.
“It became very profound to me and very clear to me just how important our faith communities are and how we need to be coming out and connecting with the isolated and the elderly,” said Hoog.
Father Riley encourages people to “get creative” in alleviating the loneliness of those who are isolated from their loved ones during this time.
“If someone isn’t on a ground floor,” he said, “families could still gather outside the window so their loved one could see them together outside, and they could communicate through their phone.
“My siblings and I visit Mom and Stepdad on their patio,” said Father Riley, “where we don’t have to wear masks and we can be distant and still hear each other and have a great time.
“Priests and deacons and lay visitors can do the same for the homebound to make sure they realize the love, care and concern of the church.”