To his congregation and family, 83-year-old David Walston is a model of perseverance.
After over half a century of knocking on doors as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Westover resident didn’t miss a beat transitioning his volunteer ministry to phone calls and letter writing when the pandemic halted in-person preaching and meetings.
He is one of thousands of seniors in the Christian organization who say they have found new ways to become involved and active during the pandemic, with a little technical assistance from others.
“Our older ones have been a model of resilience and flexibility as they adapted to major changes during the past two years,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It’s been especially challenging for them, but they’ve had a little — and sometimes a lot of — help from their friends. Fellow congregants quickly stepped in to offer practical and technical assistance.”
With such help, some 220 elderly congregants in New York’s Hudson Valley contacted more than a quarter of a million households by letter or phone last year to offer scriptural comfort in rural areas across the country that seldom received visits from Witnesses before the pandemic.
In the U.S. alone, Jehovah’s Witnesses have spent more than 400 million hours in their ministry from March 2020 to November 2021.
“Even as the pandemic winds down, we plan to keep using technology to benefit the elderly,” Hendriks said. “We love these older ones and want them to stay as connected as possible with their congregations.”
Feeling valued by their community and maintaining meaningful connections with others are vital for seniors, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls social isolation and loneliness among the elderly “serious public health risks,” especially through the pandemic.
Walston credits the virtual meetings and the volunteer ministry he loves for helping him face the challenges of growing older. “I love teleconferencing with my congregation," he said. "It's like a booster shot."
Retirees Rob and Marilyn Safford likewise say the friendships they’ve forged with fellow language learners attending a Mandarin Chinese congregation in Alhambra, California, feel as close as any family bonds.
“That sense of belonging and having friends of all ages is so satisfying and enriching,” said Marilyn, 68.
Five days a week, the couple reach out to members of the San Gabriel Valley’s large Chinese-speaking community, directing them over the phone and by letter to free Bible-based content in Mandarin on the world’s most translated website, jw.org.
Their volunteer ministry gives the Saffords a sense of purpose that’s improved their overall well-being, keeping them active in their retirement.
“Learning Chinese to share the Bible’s message fills our time in a very productive way,” said Marilyn. “The days just fly by.”
It’s helped them stay positive too. “Focusing on others helps us avoid dwelling on our own problems,” said Rob, 74.
Miguel and Ruth Chinea, of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, feel the same about their involvement with the Witnesses’ disaster relief efforts.
The retirees helped dozens of families after the series of earthquakes that struck Puerto Rico in 2019 and 2020. The couple again had a share in relief work following the volcanic eruption on the nearby island of St. Vincent in 2021.
Despite full-time caregiving for his 95-year-old mother and health problems of their own, the Chineas were able to offer remote assistance by helping disaster victims apply for humanitarian aid. They also provided comfort and support, spending hours on phone or video calls every day for months sharing encouraging Bible verses and praying with locals who had lost homes and businesses.
“We kept in constant contact with those who were affected so they wouldn’t feel alone,” said Ruth. “When we talked with them, they felt more relaxed and at ease and taken care of.”
For the Chineas, encouragement has gone both ways. Ruth credits staying active in volunteer work with keeping her and her husband happy despite their limitations. “It helps me so much to do something worthwhile and to use my time to help others,” she said.
“At our age, this is something we can still do,” added Miguel. “We’re not ‘retired’ — we’re still working for God and for others, and that makes us feel great.”