As I reflect on the elderly who are, far too often, subjected to our cruel and dehumanizing throwaway culture, I recall an oft-repeated story about Mother Teresa.
She was tending to the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick when someone exclaimed, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!”
To this, Mother Teresa replied, “Neither would I.”
It is important for caregivers to be well compensated for their deeply important and meaningful work of accompanying persons in their vulnerability, particularly as they near the end of their lives.
But do we understand that this kind of work cannot be reduced to being a means to a paycheque without creating a crisis in the hearts and minds of those who come face to face every day with human suffering, weakness, and fragility?
Mother Teresa, of course, saw herself as capable of doing the work that she did insofar as she could see God in His “distressing disguises.”
What is it that will enable caregivers today to do the necessary service about which many would say, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars?”
This evening I read a short book written by my friend and colleague’s grandmother.
In the brief memoir, Walk with Me: growing rich through relationships, author Judy Rae reflects on the experience of caring for her husband Joe while he developed Alzheimer’s.
Presented with honesty and infused with a faith, Rae offers a window into how caregiving can be a school in humanity.
Judy recounts the pain and sorrow of watching her husband lose his memory and she does not skirt the undeniably tragic dimensions of this disease.
“I have been told that when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he is introduced to a world of loneliness, rejection, terror, confusion, misinformation, and termination. Can this tragedy bring with it any victory into our lives?” she asks.
Rae speaks about how Joe became embarrassed and humiliated by what he could no longer do or remember. Despite the continual accompaniment, affection, and affirmation of his wife, Joe’s feelings of uselessness regularly caused him to get frustrated with himself and even to cry.
The other day I was having a call with my aunt and godmother who is a hospice nurse in the U.S.
She had texted me to ask, “Have you talked about dying and food? How our bodies need less and less but families want to keep feeding the dying person? Food = Life = Love. It’s quite a psychological issue.”
I was interested to hear more from her about this, so I gave her a call.
She told me, “I have some patients who, if left on their own, wouldn’t eat. They would just stop eating and it’s not that they would be starving. It’s simply that their body doesn’t need the food anymore because they are approaching death. However, their loved ones worry they’ll starve and so they think that they must feed them.”
Sometimes hospice caregivers will spend an hour trying to feed someone a bowl of oatmeal or three hours trying to feed someone a shake, she told me.
My aunt expressed some frustration over this saying that is makes her wonder: “Why are you doing this? You’re forcing it.”