Monday, 1 December 2008


It is not very nice watching someone fade away. I’m not sure the person is dying as such, but the ropes are slowly loosening from their moorings and there is an accompanying death of spirit that is frightening to behold.

Imagine a woman who has been through many struggles in life but was always determined to retain her dignity. There was the time when they were too poor to buy coal and her children would be sent out to scavenge for it from the railway embankments (not that she would ever divulge this story, you understand). There were the many times the children may have behaved less than perfectly as they grew up and caused embarrassment, grief and pain and gossip amongst the neighbours. There were her countless trips to hospital with one serious problem or another, always undignified and humiliating for such a prudish woman.

She is a gentle creature and prone to follow other people’s wishes for her, never sparing a thought for her own wishes and desires. She meekly does what she thinks she ought.

Now she spends most of her day, every day, sitting in her chair, being poached alive by the suffocating heat of her sheltered accommodation, having no company but the over loud telly. Her teeth don’t fit, but you’re not allowed to trouble anyone to get her new ones. Her hearing aid is crap, but don’t you dare trouble anyone for a better one. There are plenty to care for her and yet so little care is implemented. Yes the smells, leaks and creaks are cared for, but somehow I wonder if that is what she has become, just a series of ill fitting plumbing pieces. How often does anyone have tea with her? How often does anyone visit her and talk to her about adult things as an adult to another adult. My own visits are frustrated, there is so much I want to say but it gets lost in a vacuous sea of talk about family and their achievements. She is more than capable of good and fun conversations face to face, but most visits nowadays usually involve the smoke screen of a cute infant to dandle on the knee. Diverting, and joyous yes but not enough, not adult enough. Adult company and companionship, a recognition of a joint spiritual journey, wisdom and fear of the unknown, prayer and heartache, talking about matters of the heart and soul, lighthearted and serious….

She is electing to eat very little, she is electing to find no pleasure in anything, she is giving up. This is not helped by a frightening chemical cosh supplied by her doctor for pain management, it is impossible for her to think straight for any length of time. Are the drugs worth the side effects?

She is a woman who has been a faithful Catholic all her life and been an inspiration in the faith in so many ways, this makes her current state so very distressing. Has her determination and love of life come to this? What were a lifetime of “Hail Marys” about if this emptiness is the last days you have on earth?

We ask if she wants to see a priest?

Oh no, she’s not ready for that, she says.

Maybe that’s it, maybe she isn’t loving life enough to face death. She isn’t in a living purgatory, that would be redeeming, there would be a positive element to her suffering. Is she creating her own hell on earth by neither owning up to living life or owning up to facing death?

Why are there no formal missions to the elderly? Isn’t evangelising a priority? When the onslaughts on you body and mind (through no fault of your own) are so great why is there so little spiritual help for you.

As an aside, the meals on wheels man can enter her flat when he needs to, the man who brings her pills can enter when he wants to, so can the carers…..but a priest….oh no, he needs to be let in by the occupant, he can’t make a call because he wants to…..she has to let him in herself, but she doesn’t seem able to do that….

Pray for the lonely elderly, who are waiting this Advent.


Irene said...

Such a common tragedy, in the US just as much (or more than) in the UK.

Principally the solution seems to be finding someone to take charge -- where are those children, her siblings, nephews and nieces, fellow parishioners.... The "take charge" person certainly can see to the teeth, the hearing aid (of course the telly is too loud), the over-medication (trust me, it is not necessary to overmedicate in order to relieve pain), and the multitude of other things for which initiative is needed.

As for the priest, of course there is no reason he can't stick his head in the door and ask to talk to her, same as the other caretakers -- if he only has the initiative to do so. But we must recognize that priests are few and overloaded, and many had little or no training in pastoral counseling. So why not a deacon or other substitute from the parish? Who brings her communion? Does she have her rosary? breviary or other prayer book (you didn't mention her visual acuity)? There is plenty of room here for outreach by everyone in the parish -- how about some pleasant and devout teenage girls, I'll bet they would pep her up.

But finally and regretfully, one must accept that this behavior may be a medical issue. Not only could overmedication be an issue, but there is the basic disease process. This picture is often seen as dementia progresses. It also sounds like the end stages of cancer. It may well be that she is ready to let go, for good reason. Then the best thing that one can do is not only to sit with her during her journey, but to talk, to counsel, to help her along that journey.

Back to the beginning: yes, there are lots of women (and men) who need this attention. Plenty of work for you and the entire parish!

Ponte Sisto said...

Oh Rita, thank you for writing such a beautiful and considered post; but, what a shame you had to.

The breakdown of the family doesn't just happen to young families, but also when we get older. Even where there are loved one to visit, as you point out, the situations in which many older people are obliged to live are not conducive.

I shall remember this lady, and all like her. God help me to do more than just remember, though...

ukok said...

That was painful for me to read because i hate to think of the elderly being treated with so little espect and dignity and compassion....but it alo challenged me. I have been thinking of undertaking (with the priests consent) regularly visiting the parish sick and housebound in the parish community. One kindly elderly man does almost all the visiting alone and i think it is something that i would like to do. I am going to pray further about this, and also about the dear lady you write about here. May she know the love of Jesus and may he comfort her and give her peace that surpasses all understanding.

la mamma said...

That's very sad, Rita. I suppose we just have to trust that our prayers are heard and double our efforts for those in their twilight years.

I've tagged you, BTW!

Irene said...

Each and every person who reads this, each and every person in each and every parish can be part of the solution. Prayer of course is fundamental, but everyone can contribute something of the things I mentioned.

The other side of this is Mt 25.41-46. I don't think I want to chance NOT visiting the sick.

Rita said...

Thank you for your comments, all of you! Much appreciated.

mum6kids said...

I am so sorry about this.
I think you are right about pain meds. The side effects can sap your life away.
i will pray. I wish there were answers.
There has got to be better pain management available.
If she has any money I would recommend asking a chiropracter for an assessment and some advice. She may be too frail for treatment-but there may be ways to help her manage the pain on less meds.