Healing food

In a 1994 speech at a conference on “Spirituality and Healing”, Wendell Berry spoke about the importance of good food to a person’s healing, saying:

You would think also that a place dedicated to healing and health would make much of food. But here is where the disconnections of the industrial system and the displacement of industrial humanity are most radical. Sir Albert Howard saw accurately that the issue of human health is inseparable from the health of the soil, and he saw too that we humans much responsibly occupy our place in the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay, which is the health of the world. Aside from our own mortal involvement, food is our fundamental connection to that cycle. But probably most of the complaints you hear about hospitals have to do with the food, which, according to the testimony I have heard, tends to range from unappetizing to sickening. Food is treated as another unpleasant substance to inject. And this is a shame. For in addition to the obvious nutritional link between food and health, food can be a pleasure. People who are sick are often troubled or depressed, and mealtimes offer three opportunities a day when patients could easily be offered something to look forward to. Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepared.

Anything less is unhealthy, as well as a desecration. Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs? Are we confronting some fundamental incompatibility between mechanical effciency and organic health? I don’t know. I only know that sleeping in a hospital is like sleeping in a factory and that the medical industry makes only the most tenuous connection between health and food and no connection between health and the soil. Industrial medicine is as little interested in ecological health as is industrial agriculture.

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Where is Your Devotion to the Mystery of the Person?

Recently, I sat down with my friend Anna to listen to some of her stories.

It might surprise you that this young woman told me, “The happiest time of my life was working 16-hour days in a retirement home during COVID.”

“My body ached and my heart rejoiced,” Anna testified.

She spoke with such empathy about the elderly residents.

“Imagine! A person who has lived a hundred years might be reduced to ‘June at Table 20.’ The residents might have lived a long, fruitful life only to be reduced to their dietary preferences in their final months and years.”

Because Anna regards these seniors’ long lives with reverence, she does not like to see nor participate in taking such a reductive view of the human person.

Instead, she relishes doing her utmost to serve the residents and considers every conversation as an opportunity for a meaningful interaction.

“My favourite residents are the ones who would get agitated easily,” Anna told me. “And it became a challenge: ‘How can I make them happy?'”

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The beauty of deeds without repayment

This evening my friend shared a story with me about a couple she knows.

The couple is in their 80s and both the husband and wife are undergoing the loss of their memory.

This couple has been married for more than sixty years and they have three adult children.

One son and one daughter, who each have families of their own, have been committed to caring for their aging parents in the home in which they had all spent their life together as the children were being raised.

In an effort to preserve the routine and normalcy of family life, and in order to avoid needing to put the parents into a long-term care home, the adult son and daughter have developed a ritual of care.

Every single day, for the past six years, the daughter arrives to the home at 11:00 a.m. to serve her parents lunch.

And every single day, for the same six years, the son has arrived at 5:00 p.m. to serve dinner to his parents and then to open the door to the personal support workers who then take over in assisting with the parents’ care into the evening.

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An Appetite for Affection

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.”

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