Supporting the care-givers of the elderly Sisters: Challenges in light of our charism
by: Sister María Angeles Infante, DC
[This article first appeared in Anales volume 119, #5, September-October 2011 and has been translated and posted here with permission of the editors]
Old age: a time of joy and prophecy
1. The meaning and the value of old age
The theme of caring for the care givers was examined in Rome during November 2007 meeting of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care. I have used their studies and reflections for this presentation. Better health conditions and scientific advances in the area of health have led to the prolongation of life. Old age need not be synonymous with dependence. There are people who have enjoyed the gift of longevity and lived with great mental clarity. At the same time there are other people who see old age as an oppressive fatality and find it most difficult to accept this stage of life as a time that is filled with new possibilities that open life to optimism and hope.
In our society there is an image of the third phase of life as one of decline and as one that is lacking sufficient human and social relationships. Despite this image there is a group of people who understand the significance of this stage of life. There are many people who not only live this phase of life with dignity and serenity but also see this stage of life as one that presents them with new opportunities for development and commitment: more time available for relationships, for reading, for sports, for hobbies, for contemplation, etc. There is, however, another group of people, quite numerous at this time, who view old age as a traumatic event. This group includes people who confront their own aging process with an attitude of passive resignation, an attitude that manifests itself in rebellion and rejection. These are self-absorbed individuals who have placed themselves on the margin of life and as a result have begun a process of physical and mental degradation.
It is possible to affirm that there are as many dimensions to the third and fourth ages as there are people in these stages of life. Throughout their life people prepare the way in which they will live their later years. In this sense, then, old age grows in the same way as we grow. The quality of this growth will depend on our ability to appreciate its significance and value in its human dimension as well as its faith dimension. Therefore it is necessary to place the aging process within the framework of God’s loving plan and to live this stage of life as one in which we understand that Christ is leading us to the Father’s house (Cf., John 14:2). Only through the light of faith and only if we are rooted in hope that does not deceive will we be able to live this stage of life in a truly Christian manner … as a gift and as a task. This is the secret of spiritual youthfulness that can be cultivated despite one’s age. Linda, a woman who lived for 106 years, has provided us with a wonderful testimony: I am 101 years old but do you know that I am strong. Yes, physically I have certain impairments but spiritually I can do everything and so I do not allow physical realities to overwhelm me … I do not pay attention to those matters. I am not saying that I live these years and am inattentive to them … no, the years will continue to come and to go and I accept all of this because I realize that the only way to live these years is to live them in God.
To rectify the present negative image of old age is a cultural and educational task that involves all of us. We have a responsibility toward those who are elderly, a responsibility to help them understand the significance of their stage in life, to help them become aware of their own resources, and to help them overcome the temptation of rejection, isolation and resigning themselves to being useless and thus enter a state of despair. At the same time we have a responsibility toward future generations to provide them with a human, social and spiritual context that will allow everyone to live the later years of their life with dignity and wholeness. In his message to the world assembly on the problem of an aging population, John Paul II affirmed: Life is a gift of God to man who is created out of love in the image and likeness of God. This understanding of the sacred dignity of the human person leads to the appreciation of every state of life. It is a question of consistency and justice. It is impossible to truly value the life of an older person if the life of a child is not valued from the moment of its conception. No one knows where we might arrive, if life is no longer respected as something inalienable and sacred (John Paul II, Message to the World Assembly on Aging, July 22, 1982).
2. Toward an intergenerational society and community
The building up of the much desired society that reaches out to and embraces all generations will become a reality only if it is founded upon a respect for life in all its stages. The presence of so many elderly people in the contemporary world is a gift of human and spiritual enrichment. It is a sign of the times that shows that people can recover meaning in life and move beyond the prevailing selfish mentality. Experience has shown that the elderly can contribute to the process of humanizing our society and culture. This contribution is now more precious than ever before and has led to valuing that which might be viewed as the characteristic gifts of the elderly.
---Gratitude. In the midst of a society characterized by profit margins and efficiency, elderly people who make themselves available to listen to others can give an example to those individuals who are singularly focused on their own problems. The elderly have time and are able to reflect on the fact that we have become a society that is overly concerned with our own needs and as a result we have become indifferent to the needs of others. The elderly show us that altruism and gratitude are the only way to break through the barriers of indifference.
---Remembering. In a world that places much importance on the present now moment, the elderly are called to give meaning to past events. The younger generations are losing a sense of history and as a result are also losing their identity. We live in a society that minimizes the meaning of history and often fails to provide young people with an historical perspective in their formation. To ignore the past is to run the risk of repeating the mistakes of previous eras. That is what is happening on the political level … the loss of a historical sense has also become an obstacle to dialogue among generations.
---Experience. Technical and scientific progress tend to supplant the experience that the elderly have accumulated during their life. Today we live in a world in which scientific and technological answers seem to have replaced the usefulness of experience. These cultural barriers, however, should not discourage those individuals in the third and fourth age … indeed they have much to offer new generations and much to share with them.
---Interdependence and the ability to relate. No one is able to live alone. Nevertheless individualism and excessive competition hide this reality. The elderly, in their search for relationships, become a sign of protest against a society in which the weak are frequently abandoned and forgotten. At the same time the elderly call our attention to the social nature of the human person and the need for communication, the need to establish a network of interpersonal and social relationships among the members of the family, the community, the church and the world.
---Contemplation that results in a fuller vision of life. At times we seem to be living against the clock. We are always on the move, always busy. Our eagerness and countless tasks, our agitation and haste often lead us to live an interiorly disordered life: we forget the fundamental questions about vocation, dignity, and the destiny of the human person. The third age is the age of simplicity, a time to return to that which is essential, a time of contemplation. The affective, moral and religious values that the elderly hold in high esteem are a valuable resource for the balance of society, the family, individual people, and groups. The experience of the elderly leads them to fidelity, friendship, putting aside power, cultivation of an interior life and rejoicing in said process of development, prudence in judging, patience, wisdom, respect for creation, peace-making. The elderly understand the priority of “being” over “having” … society and religious families would be better and would be enriched if they knew how to take advantage of the charisms of the elderly.
3. To take care of the elderly and ourselves
The stage of an elder adult begins at 65 and continues until death. This stage is normally divided into two phases: in the first phase (from 65-80) the elderly normally continue to be active in some way. Then they enter into the second phase which is also referred to as the fourth age … a phase in which they become increasingly inactive as a result of physical and/or psychic deterioration. Caring for the elderly and caring for ourselves implies:
3.1. Becoming aware of the limitations and the characteristics of this stage
A] On the psycho-somatic level the elderly slowly begin to lose energy and as a result they begin to put aside their usual activity. At times this movement toward inactivity is the result of some health crisis. This passage toward inactivity needs to be encouraged and motivated because this can become a source for new opportunities that enable one to cultivate the contemplative dimension of life.
In his Prayer for an elderly person, Esteban Gumucio, a priest of the Sacred Heart, states: Almost without being aware of it I am discovering hidden truths and movements. Suddenly in the midst of the awkwardness of illness and my senile condition you, my God, have freely gifted me with the wonderful ability of being able to accept the reality of growing older. You are with me here and now. O Lord, in the depths of my soul I experience a calmness, a type of humble confidence that invites me to place myself in your hands (p. 133).
Caretakers must keep themselves informed about new medicines and about the consequences of pains and aches and immobility. They should engage in creative and attractive activities: exercises that stimulate the memory, puzzles and games, etc because it is in this way that they can take care of themselves. It is important that they become aware of their own limitations and accept these as something that is natural and normal. Therefore they need to collaborate with other laypeople and they also need to take time to relax and at times, to look for a change in their environment to order to avoid becoming tired and/or burned out.
B] On the psychological level the past becomes more important than the future. In fact to the degree that one is forced to become inactive the future ceases to be attractive and one runs the risk of becoming wholly focused on self and the illnesses that have attacked the body. According to Erikson the crisis that must be confronted during this final stage of life is characterized by the on-going struggle to live with serenity in the face of the constant temptation to despair. Since it appears that there is no future the elderly are confronted with the past: they will either accept the past as it was (and thus achieve serenity) or they will reject it (and fall into despair because the future is no longer available to them and they feel that they are unable to change). Each individual will experience movement between both of these extremes and eventually one of these extremes will predominate.
Caregivers are challenged to encourage serenity, to organize stimulating activities, to facilitate the process of listening and communication, and to assist their elderly brothers and sisters enter into dialogue with God, the church and the world in order that they might experience themselves as active participants in the mission.
C] On the spiritual level this is a time for calm integration of the failures and successes of one’s life. This will involve the honest recognition of the movement of God’s grace in one’s life as well as the presence of sin. This will also mean that one is profoundly grateful for the wonderful things that God has done for him/her and done for others through him/her. Lastly, one is able to hand one’s self over to the loving, merciful and forgiving hand of God and able to do this with the trust and the abandonment of a child.
Caregivers are challenged to facilitate the development and the deepening of the spiritual life through readings, biblical reflections, the celebration of the liturgy, the teachings of the church, and in our case, a deeper understanding of the history and the charism of the Company. These different activities can involve the use of videos or movies or book reviews or community prayer or visits to religious expositions. People should be especially encouraged in their personal prayer and in their encounter with Jesus Christ.
3.2. To be mindful of and to live the gospel, in a way that is proper to this stage in life
According to specialists in pastoral ministry, the Good News at this final stage in life is characterized by two elements: a) faith that can achieve its fullness and b) the desire to achieve freedom in faith as a pure gift.
A] The fullness of faith development is normally achieved during this final stage in life. Fowler discovered this fullness as the univeralization of faith. Believers (of whatever faith) who have arrived at this stage in life are people who embody (in a contagious manner) the spirit of an inclusive human community; they are people who create around themselves zones of freedom because they live with a belief of sharing a power that is able to unify and transform the world. Thus, they experience themselves as the yeast in the midst of the dough, in the midst of structures and institutions … normally these individuals are honored when they have died and not while they are alive. According to Fowler, John Paul II, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton have achieved this fullness. We might add to this list the names of Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Catherine Laboure, Rosalie Rendu and others.
B] In this stage of life an experience of true freedom becomes possible. The experience that we have accumulated over the years enables us to see things more realistically and also enables us to grasp more easily the very heart of different situations and concerns. The spiritual dimension of faith reveals more clearly the distance between God and the human and cultural representations that we utilize in order to relate to God. Our faith also reveals the distance between the transcendent God and the beliefs, practices, activities, and images through which we “see” God becoming incarnated for us. At the same time, while we become aware of these distances we also become aware of the fact that we can only encounter the transcendent God through these imminent mediations.
We are dealing with the biblical image of the Kingdom of God, with the idea of the radical monotheism of the bible and the corresponding faith which is never totally encompassed in the beliefs, practices, and symbols which are utilized to express our relationship with God. We are involved in a time of vigilance because we want to avoid supplanting the One God with idols: politics, family, the Company, our activities, etc. … vigilance and spiritual combat do not destroy the reality of these other centers of power and value but rather put them in their proper perspective in relation to God, the only true treasure.
Caregivers of the elderly ought to avoid acting as though they were very important individuals or acting in a way that attempts to justify their existence through the works they have done, that is, acting as though the solutions to the problems are in their hands. Yes, we must work, but we must work with the humility of people who accept with joy the fact that everything we are and everything we do has a relative value and therefore we do not always act in the most correct or the best manner … all of what we do should be seen as a sign that points to some One beyond ourselves rather than some personal strength or power which can be lost at any time.
Esteban Gumucio expresses this freedom in faith in the following manner: If we view death negatively, as the cessation of life and as leaving behind the condition that has identified our being, then we do not need to prepare for death. An individual who no longer “is” does not need to prepare. If, however, we view death positively, as a definitive encounter with the Lord, then death is a gift that is beyond our manipulation. Death is the fullness of blessing and the initiative of the One who is the mysterious and infinite source of all love. We are invited to be vigilant with a life-giving love: each day we are invited to make a decision to respond to the God of love, the God who is Love, to the God who presents himself anew. We are invited not just to prepare but to be open to the Advent of our God, to the humble and joyful coming of our God. To be watchful is to live with caution, but not with fear, not like the servant who buried the talent that had been given to him. We need to be vigilant because God is constantly entering our life and the life of the community and the life of our church, the people of God. The vigilance that God requests of us (as our life moves toward its end) consists of cooperating with the action of the Holy Spirit who wants us to put aside all those things that we cling to, all those things that we have become attached to, that we call “mine”, the false treasures that we tend to create each day … we are invited to place all our trust in the one true God.
3.3. The emphasis on faith during this stage of life: in what do I have to believe
Religious, the caregivers of elderly religious are challenged to purify their faith during this stage in life. The Church recommends that we strengthen our faith and help others do the same.
A] To believe in God who is beyond all the images and representations that we, as creatures, have fashioned. To remember the example of Louise de Marillac who during her retreat of 1657 promised to accept the truths of the faith even though she did not experience, on a feeling level, the presence of God.
B] To clothe ourselves in the attitudes of Jesus in the same way that Saint Paul (Philippians 2:5) and our Founders did, especially in our activity on behalf of the kingdom of God. To learn to live the divine filiation and to grow in the filial spirit of trust and abandonment.
C] To believe that God loves me as I have been and as I am, weaker, more fragile, apparently more useless … trusting that in my weakness I reveal my strength (2 Corinthians 12:9) … to believe that God invites me to be born anew --- from on high by the Spirit --- like Nicodemus (John 3:3-8) and to permanently recover that first love (Revelation 2:4-5).
D] To cultivate hope which, according to Erikson, is the virtue that is characteristic of this final stage of human life and which, in light of the reality of our faith, is a sign of the eschatological realities of the Kingdom of God toward which we are moving. This hope culminates with a trust in God who awaits us and saves us. This same hope enables me to directly confront death as it draws closer. Hope that is rooted in faith in the Risen Lord sustains us in living out our mission. Because of Christ that which seemed to be lost is transformed because that which is sown corruptible is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; ir is raised powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).
E] To believe also in the brothers and sisters who care for me when I am unable to care for myself, when I have lost my sense of autonomy … to believe that they will lead me (see John 21:18).
4. Challenges from the perspective of fidelity to the charism
4.1. Struggles against the temptations that are characteristic of this age
It is important that caregivers of elderly religious be aware of the more common temptations that can occur during this stage of life.
A] Self-absorption or more specifically the temptation to cling to one’s past projects, to become focused on the past, on one’s successes, one’s failures, one’s sins. The challenge is to respond to the call of on-going openness to God and to others and thus achieve (in the image of the Blessed Trinity) the establishment of communion in the local community.
B] To believe that I am indispensable … because if I am not in the mix of things then…. To become so attached to my tasks and ministry that I do not allow others to take my place and do things as they see best and not in the way I want things to be done. The challenge here is to be humble, to learn the lesson of the yeast and the mass of dough, namely, the yeast must disappear in order for the dough to rise. To learn to rejoice when others do things that I was unable to do; to realize that I am not indispensable and that others, as they change the style and form that I saw as the only approach to ministry, can minister in a better way than I did … ultimately others can serve better than I did.
C] To remain closed up in a feeling of uselessness because I can no longer do what I previously did and therefore I now believe that I am worthless and do not have a right to be valued or loved by others. The challenge is to open my heart to the joy of being wholly and totally available to God, especially now when I can no longer do anything that appears to give visible witness to the Kingdom of God. The other challenge is to know how to be present to those who have taken my place in ministry, how to be present to them in an affective way, through prayer and even perhaps through providing some advice to them.
D] To succumb to the fear of death … this fear that makes us cling to life and as a result makes it impossible for us to place ourselves in the hands of God. The challenge is beautifully expressed in the prayer that was written by Esteban Gumucio, a prayer in which the petitioner requests faith-confidence when facing the reality of death. Jesus, friend and Lord, these nights I have dreamed about my death … In these dreams I noticed that I am afraid of discovering the fact that my life was meaningless and that faith-confidence were not ever present realities. I want to be able to confront the reality of death as it presents itself to me but I know that I am unable to accept it with the certainty that is given to those who understand that they are called to live forever in God. My fears have the unpleasant aftertaste of the Pharisees … a fear of not being repentant in the way that I should. I know that you accept me unconditionally and also forgive me. Help me to believe in you more deeply than I do in the pain of dying. I place myself in your hands. Lord, I accept death in whatever form it might present itself because I know that this reality comes from you. Help me to take advantage of this time of grace that you have given to me (Bienadventurados [Blessed] … pp. 164-165).
4.2. To experience oneself as an active participant in the mission
In order for this feeling to come alive in us and in the elderly Sisters, we must begin by continually posing the following question: Lord, what are you asking of me now? What is my mission during this stage of my life? Like every other stage in life, this stage has its own unique mission, its sending forth by the Lord. I point out five elements which I believe are possibilities that can be accomplished by everyone who moves through this stage of life.
A] To listen to others in their time of affliction and to pray for the needs of the world and the church. This is a wonderful way to live the Nazareth event of old age since this is also a time when we will experience fewer demands on our external activity thus providing us with more time to welcome and accept, more time to listen, to pray and to express our gratitude. Esteban Gumucio states: How great is the world’s and the church’s need for “confidants”! How great is the need for lived experiences and prayer! The Holy Spirit can bestow upon us the gift of being able to communicate to our communities peace, acceptance, and courage during these difficult moments or those times when spirits are low (Bienadventurados [Blessed] … p. 202-203).
B] To instill our surroundings with a calm realism and a freedom that is achieved during this stage of life, helping other to not become caught up in the small things that separate them from that which is most important. The freedom that one enjoys at this stage in life enables people to see more clearly those things which are most important and thus they are able to leave behind those things which are of secondary importance.
C] To enter into this new stage of life and accompany with kindness those who take up our former activities, leaving these individuals free to act in accord with their own vision of reality and ministry, while transmitting to them (not imposing on them) the power of our lived charism and the traditions that will support and strengthen said charism.
D] To accept the limitations, the ailments and the pains that are part of the aging process and in this way to identify with Christ’s passion. This is a way of living this time of our life in communion with the attitudes and experiences of the crucified Lord.
E] In light of the gospel to deepen our knowledge of the charism and the history of the Company.
5. Suggestions and resources for the response
5.1. Deepen one’s understanding of the Word of God
Old age is a precious time to deepen one’s understanding of the Word of God and to establish, on the foundation of the Word, our mission of concern for those who are elderly. There are tasks that enlighten us in a special manner and that can fill life with meaning at this stage. I propose some specific individuals and some biblical passage but do not pretend in any manner to indicate that this is an exhaustive list. Rather I am simply pointing out some possible areas for reflection.
A] Elijah. Elijah suffered as he became aware of the fact that he was not better than his parents and at the same time wanted to put aside the ungrateful and dangerous task of being a prophet. In fact he wanted God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4). But God told him to embark on a journey to Horeb, a journey of forty days and nights (1 Kings 19:8-9). When God became present in the tiny whispering sound (1 Kings 19:12), Elijah is sent back: Go take the road back to the desert near Damascus (1 Kings 19:15) and given the mission of anointing Jehu as the new king of Israel and Elisha as the prophet to succeed him. God helped Elijah to discover that he was not alone as he had believed (1 Kings 19:10, 14) and that there were seven thousand people who had not knelt down to Baal (1 kings 19:18). Elijah had to discover that the world did not end with him and his failure. Now he could hand over his cloak and allow Elisha to take his place.
B] Nicodemus. Even though he was elderly, he attempted to be born anew, not by returning to his mother’s womb but by allowing himself to be immersed in the Spirit of God (See, Bienadventurados [Blessed] … p. 102-203).
C] Abraham and Sarah. They expressed their openness to God’s plans by obeying God and beginning their journey even though they were advanced in years. Abraham would be blessed and would become the father of a great nation (Genesis 12:2-5). In time this nation would be blessed in a special manner. Abraham had no idea about the land to which he was being directed and also was not aware of the blessings that would be bestowed upon the people, but he trusted God and obeyed. Unexpected fertility in their advanced years was one of the blessings that Abraham and Sarah received.
D] Simeon. Simeon is a figure of final serenity: Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace … This just man had waited many years for the arrival of this day. He sees in this child (who was no different from other children) the one who was the light of the world, the one who enlightens all people, the one who brings salvation to the world. This salvation was long awaited and is still awaited today because creation cries out in pain until it sees the full revelation of the Son of God.
E] Peter and the Risen Lord at the lakeside … do you love me? This question is decisive with regard to my relationship with God and focuses me on my first and only love. The question is followed by a command: tend my sheep … tend to them as mine and not yours; give them freedom. When you do not tend them in this way, when you provide for them as though they were yours, they will in turn become sad. Remember that despite your unfaithfulness and your sinfulness (realities that sadden you) the Lord renews in you his trust and he sends you forth on a new mission. Do not compare yourself to others nor focus on your concerns and merits but rather concentrate on that which is essential: follow me.
F] The disciples on the road to Emmaus. Now I am able to travel from Emmaus to Jerusalem. Even though I have not always recognized the Lord, I have become aware of how my heart was burning while I walked with him. Now I am able to recognize on the altar that what I believed to be the end of my journey was simply a new beginning, a new sending forth to my community.
5.2. Keep connected
It is fundamental to keep the mind, the heart and the spirit active. Read the newspaper or a good book, listen to the radio or watch television, become aware of and take an interest in what is happening in the Church and the world and then, in prayer, raise up the problems of the world and the Church to the Lord. This is one way to maintain a lively mind and heart and is also one dimension of our service on behalf of the poor.
The constitutions of the Daughters of Charity (C. 35b) remind us that the elderly and the infirm Sisters play an active role in the mission. This has always been the situation in the life of the Company and today, when we have a greater number of elderly Sisters then we have previously had, this is no less true. To help our Sisters remain connected with the needs of the world and the Church and the poor is an important task for those who minister to the elderly. Maintaining contact with reality is key to overcoming isolation and keeping the mind active. Serving as a parish social outreach volunteer and/or participating in liturgical, charitable, cultural or catechetical activities is another way of involving individuals in the life of the community.
There are studies that show that the older Sisters who serve as volunteers or participate in parish or civic organizations enjoy a higher level of mental and physical well-being than those who are not involved in this way. We should be aware of the fact that helping others fosters self-esteem. Older women, be they lay or religious, if they serve as volunteers, they feel that this helps them a) do some good in their own community, b) learn some new skill, c) expand their social network.
This is also a stimulus for mental and physical health. Just as mental activity keeps the mind alert so it is necessary and advisable to become involved in some form of physical activity since said activity will strengthen the body. One way of accomplishing all of this is to learn or develop new and or familiar skills, such as: • To learn to play a musical instrument. • To organize a book discussion group, taking advantage of the Sister’s knowledge of the Bible and the Church’s teaching as well as the history of the Church and the history of the community (sharing of material). • To play scrabble or puzzles, to engage in mental association games, to do crosswords, etc. • To participate in workshops in the area of manual arts, painting, sewing, physical exercise, etc. • To remain attentive to what is happening in the world through reading print newspaper or online papers. • Another important activity is visiting and meetings, for example, an elderly Sister can visit a house of formation (or an apostolic community of younger Sisters) and share her experiences with the community. In doing this the Sister’s mind and spirit are kept alive.
Links to other articles in this series:
The elderly as viewed from the perspective of the bible and the church’s magisterioum; by: Sister Maria Angeles Infante, DC
The final years of Louise de Marillac; by: Sister María Angeles Infante, DC
On selling the chalices; by: Robert Maloney, CM
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM