Aging Gracefully

28 Oct

holding hand of elderly personAs I turn 55 this month, I’m looking forward to all the senior discounts, especially now that my kids have outgrown the children’s menu. It also gives me an opportunity to reflect on aging.

When my family moved to Ohio in 1993, we invited my mother Eileen (“Mom”) to come live with us. While still capable of living on her own, Mom was beginning to feel the effects of age and heart problems, and it was increasingly burdensome for her to maintain her condominium. Plus, we considered “Grandma” part of our family, and valued her time with us. So we warmly welcomed her–and her cats!–into our home.

In December 1998, Mom was hospitalized with pneumonia. Complications ensued after Christmas. She developed a serious infection and became septic. She went into respiratory arrest and was placed on a ventilator and ultimately a feeding tube was inserted. She spent the entire month of January in intensive care, and the doctors were not at all optimistic about her recovery. So many machines, so little change in Mom’s condition. I had to consent to a dizzying array of procedures and tests on her behalf. But mostly, we were praying and waiting.

In February, Mom’s condition had improved enough for her to be moved out of intensive care. Even then, her doctors gave us little hope of her ever being able to come home, and had recommended various institutions where we could put her. After all, she needed so much personal care, and she’d likely be tube-fed for the rest of her life. We pleaded, cajoled, and argued with the doctors to let her come home. On Holy Saturday, a couple hours before the Easter Vigil, our request was granted.

At home, Mom’s condition steadily improved. We gradually were able to return the various hospital apparatus the state and local agencies provided us. We even weaned her from her feeding tube. But more than all the milestones and improvements Mom made, what stuck with me most was the doctor’s comment at one of her post-hospitalization visits. He admitted that he underestimated the ability of our family to care for Mom, and, in fact, that we were able to do more for her than he could.

We moved to Olathe in 2007, and Mom was still with us. In 2008, her conditioned worsened, and we were so grateful to have the Villa St. Francis nearby to care for her during her final months. She passed away in February 2009.

I really don’t see our family’s approach to caring for Mom as being particularly heroic. Having multiple generations under one roof can be very stressful at times, and we didn’t always show one another the love and respect Our Lord expects of us. Yet with God’s grace we made the effort, firmly believing that this is how Our Lord wants us to grow in holiness.

I come from a very large family, from which I learned the value of extended family. And while my Mom, a convert to the Catholic Church, never talked too much about her faith, she did manifest it to me when I was a child as she daily cared for my handicapped grandmother. Given this background, it always seemed “natural” to have Mom live with us.

However, I’m fully aware that in welcoming Mom into our household — despite her infirmity — we were making a distinctively countercultural choice. Our society often tells us that the older generation is just as inconvenient and annoying as children. Openness to the elderly can be just as politically incorrect as openness to new life.

We saw in the 20th century how Planned Parenthood and the little-known, radical views of its founder, Margaret Sanger, incrementally thrusted its contraceptive anti-natalist, racist, and eugenic agenda on the world. The result has been that conduct once considered unspeakably evil–the killing of unborn or even partially born children–is not only accepted, but enshrined as an inalienable right. Some of us, however, may not be aware that a similar effort is well under way to legitimize the killing of our elderly and ill citizens.

In 1938, President of the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA) Dr. Foster Kennedy announced his organization’s support of legislation to legalize the killing of “defective” or “incurable” human beings–with or without their consent. Back then, such legislation was utterly intolerable to the vast majority of our citizens, so the ESA and other pro-euthanasia organizations eventually took a more strategic, incremental approach, employing deceptive language such as “death with dignity” and building upon the utilitarianism (“quality of life”) and radical autonomy (“right to choose”) mantras championed by secular society and sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many now see euthanasia as a topic of political discussion, not an abomination.

With advancing age the elderly develop an acute awareness of their own mortality, often accompanied by pain and loneliness. Yet, through faith and the supernatural virtue of hope, Christians understand the twilight of life as a passage from the fragile and uncertain joy of this world to the fullness of joy which the Lord holds in store for His faithful servants: “Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:21).

St. John Paul II wrote that honoring older people involves welcoming them, helping them, and affirming their gifts. He stressed that “the most natural place to spend one’s old age continues to be the environment in which one feels most ‘at home,’ among family members, acquaintances, and friends.”

The Holy Father by no means denigrated but rather praised “homes for the elderly,” especially those run by religious communities and volunteer groups that are committed to the care of the aged. What is most important, especially as America increasingly becomes a graying country, is to counter the culture of death by promoting a widespread attitude of acceptance and appreciation of the elderly, particularly within the family, so that people may grow old with dignity.

Leon Suprenant is the pastoral associate for administration in the Office of the Permanent Diaconate. For more information on the diaconate, visit www.archkck.org/deacons. This article, in abridged form, appeared in the October 24, 2014 edition of The Leaven.

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