Anyone who has ever loved someone who experienced profound vulnerability and dependency knows that people have dignity not only for what they can do but simply, and fundamentally, for who they are.
“Quality of life” is not an individual assessment but a community’s responsibility.
I recently came across these words of Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Breitowitz who says:
The concept of quality of life, per se, is not a relevant idea because any life is worthy of sustaining because there are purposes for a soul to be in the body that we don’t always perceive. Sometimes the purpose of a soul in the body is not because of what the body can do – even if it’s comatose – but the body enables other people to do mitzvos [good deeds] such as pray, give charity, and the like. So sometimes, the purpose of your life is not what you yourself are accomplishing; the purpose of your life is what you are enabling others to accomplish, and that is a great spiritual benefit that will serve this soul well when it goes into the world of truth.
Such a view requires cultivating the ability to receive help, support, treatment, affection, and acts of kindness from others.
Kindness depends on cooperation between the recipient and the giver, between the person in need and the person rendering some form of service.
A seeming “diminishing quality of life” corresponds to increasing need and opportunities to show kindness.
Painting: Visiting the Sick, Modernist Israeli Oil Painting, Avraham Ofek
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?”
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?'”
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.