Sharing the Gospel By Caring for the Aging

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten your belt and take you where you do not wish to go.” 

This famous warning to Peter from Jesus in the Gospel of John is followed by John’s parenthetical comment: (This was said to show by what death he was to glorify God).

Far be it from me to second guess John, but I truly believe that when Jesus speaks in the gospels, he is speaking not only to the person in that particular verse, but to us individually as well. So, although he is clearly talking about the end of Peter’s life, he is talking about the end of our lives as well.

When Jesus describes Peter’s predicament, he hints at ours as well . When we are young, we get to go where we want to go and do what we want to do. (I had what might be described as a “free range” childhood, so that was true for me from about age six.) As we advance in age, we become increasingly dependent on others. After a lifetime of independence, many elderly find themselves told where to live, what to wear, even what and when to eat.

I’m not that old yet, but as someone who has been taking people by they hand and leading them where they do not want to go for the last twenty years or so, it’s been on my mind.

I served as a trustee for my Mother and two of my aunts over the years. On the surface, this would seem to be only a financial responsibility. I have come to see over the years that it is a minor form of ministry as well.

When my parents asked me to serve as their trustee, it didn’t seem like a big deal. When Dad died a few years later, I came to realize it was a big deal indeed. Typically, the surviving spouse becomes the trustee, their trust was set up to make me trustee upon Dad’s death. I soon realized why.

My brothers, sisters, and I assumed that Mom was more independent than she really was. Through the filter of their marriage, she seemed to function fairly well. Once she was alone we could see that this was not the case. After years of living in near poverty, my parents came into a bit of money in the last decades of their lives. My job now was to make sure that the money didn’t run out during her lifetime.

That was really the easy part. The heavy lifting was all done by my three sisters who ministered to her physical and spiritual needs. They dealt with her health care and eventually her end-of-life care. I only had to write the checks. My two sisters, who were still practicing Catholics, made sure she was always able to get to Mass. They only occasionally called upon me to pinch hit.

After a few years of attending Mass at her parish, she decided that she preferred our Newman Center parish to hers. My sisters accommodated her. Looking back on this, I  realize that this seemingly simple gesture had a huge impact on the practice of her faith.

In the last years of her life, she was able to develop a first-name relationship with our pastor who, during that time, presided over Confirmations, Baptisms, weddings, and funerals for our family. Shortly before her death, he attended her 90th birthday party and took time to visit with her during the meal.

This all meant a lot to Mom. The willingness of those taking her by the hand to take her where she actually wanted to go had a tremendous impact on both the quality of her life and exercise of her faith.

We had the opposite experience with my wife’s eldest aunt. Again, my role as her financial caretaker was the easy one. Meeting her physical and spiritual needs were a challenge.

As her health declined, we battled over each new development. She refused to stop driving after she became too disoriented to navigate. (Her final drive ended in a county wide police search.). She never forgave me for clubbing her car after that. (Which was fine, since I didn’t do it!)

She resented the intrusion of the home health care aids we hired for her, and eventually complied, but resented her placement in an assisted living apartment after a series of falls. All the time we struggled to find the balance between accommodating her wishes and doing what  we belived was best for her.

The strangest struggle was over Mass.  After a lifetime of faithful attendance, when she could no longer walk to church, she stopped attending Mass. Week after week, she refused to attend Mass or accept rides to church so she could attend alone.  It was time to lead her where she did not want to go. In this case, her nieces arranged, without her consent, to receive weekly visits from a Eucharistic Minister. The two developed a close relationship that continued for the remaining years of her life. I know that she appreciated both the sacrament and the companionship. She would just never admit it.

Our toughest call came just a few months before her death. My wife and I had asked her to come with us to a Mass of Anointing. Each time we asked, she refused. When the day came, we went to her apartment and told her that we would not take no for an answer.

She sat silent through the Mass. When those who wanted the Anointing of the Sick were called to the altar, she refused to budge. After all those who came up had been anointed, Father Blessing (Yes, that’s his real name) caught our eye and gestured as if to say, “Do you need me to come over there?” We nodded. He came into our pew and bending over, whispered to her. She nodded her consent and was anointed. She didn’t speak to us on the way home.

Did we push? Yes. Do I feel guilty about that? No.

As it turned out, it was her final encounter with the Church. Months later, without time to arrange last rites, her last breath was taken with a few family members in the emergency room with her to say the Our Father over her as she left this earth.

We are now caring for my wife’s youngest aunt, the last of her generation. A few years ago, she gave up driving without protest when it became clear that she would be a danger to herself and others. She has been more than happy to attend Mass with her nieces who take turns going with her. When she began to struggle writing checks and reading her statements she turned those chores over to me without hesitation.

A few weeks ago, when her doctor told her that it was no longer safe for her to live on her own, she embraced the idea of moving into an assisted living community. After more than two decades of caring for elderly family members, it is a relief to have a situation where a family member is willing to go where we must lead them.

We have learned from each experience. As a result we are better at finding the right balance between providing appropriate care and respecting the dignity of those we are caring for. I am hopeful that we can pass on some of what we have learned to others in our family.

We had better. Someone will be taking us by the hand soon!

Copyright 2014 Kirk Whitney

3 Comments
  1. January 29, 2014 | Reply
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      Kirk Whitney
      January 29, 2014 | Reply
  2. Gail
    February 10, 2014 | Reply

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