Deep down, we knew this day would come. When my family my moved to Ohio in 1993, we invited my mother Eileen (“Mom”) to come live with us. While still capable of living on her own, Mom was beginning to feel the effects of age and heart problems, and it was increasingly burdensome for her to maintain her condominium.
There’s No Place Like Home
Besides, we considered Mom, or “Grandma,” part of our family, and we valued her time with us. So we welcomed her and her cats into our home.
In December 1998, Mom was hospitalized with pneumonia. Complications ensued after Christmas. She developed a serious infection and became septic. She went into respiratory arrest and was placed on a ventilator, and eventually the medical staff inserted a feeding tube. She spent the entire month of January in intensive care, and the doctors were not at all optimistic about her recovery. So many machines, so little change in Mom's condition. I had to consent to a dizzying array of procedures and tests on her behalf. But mostly, we were praying and waiting.
In February, Mom's condition had improved enough for her to be moved out of intensive care. Even then, her doctors doubted that she would ever be well enough to come home. Instead, they recommended various institutions where we could have her admitted. After all, they reasoned, she needed so much personal care, and she'd likely be tube-fed for the rest of her life. We pleaded, cajoled, and argued with the doctors to let her come home. On Holy Saturday 1999, a couple hours before the Easter Vigil, our request was granted.
At home, Mom's condition steadily improved. We gradually were able to return the various hospital apparatus the state and local agencies provided us. We even weaned her from her feeding tube. But more than all the milestones and improvements Mom made, what stuck with me most was her doctor's candid admission at one of her post-hospitalization visits. He conceded that he underestimated the ability of our family to care for Mom and, in fact, we were able to do more for her than he could.
Mom is still with us to this day, thanks be to God!
Counter-Cultural All the Way
I really don't see our family's approach to caring for Mom as being particularly heroic. Having multiple generations under one roof can be very stressful at times, and we don't always show one another the love and respect our Lord expects of us. Yet with God's grace we make the effort, firmly believing that this is how our Lord wants us to grow in holiness.
I come from a very large family, from which I learned the value of extended family. And while my Mom, a convert to the Catholic Church, never talked too much about her faith, she did manifest it to me when I was a child as she daily cared for my handicapped grandmother. Given this background, it has always seemed “natural” to have Mom live with us.
However, I'm fully aware that in welcoming Mom into our household despite her infirmity we're making yet another countercultural choice. Our society often tells us that the older generation is just as inconvenient and annoying as children. Openness to the elderly can be just as politically incorrect as openness to new life.
We saw in the 20th century how Planned Parenthood and the little-known radical views of its founder, Margaret Sanger, incrementally thrusted its contraceptive, anti-natalist, racist, and eugenic agenda on the world. The result has been that conduct once considered unspeakably evil the killing of unborn or even partially born children is not only accepted, but enshrined as an inalienable right.
Some of us, however, may not be aware that a similar effort is well under way to legitimize the killing of our elderly and ill citizens.
In 1938, Dr. Foster Kennedy, President of the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA), announced his organization's support of the legalization of the killing of “defective” or “incurable” human beings with or without their consent. Back then, such legislation was utterly intolerable to the vast majority of our citizens, so the ESA and other pro-euthanasia organizations have taken a more strategic, incremental approach, employing deceptive language such as “death with dignity” and building upon the utilitarianism (“quality of life”) and radical autonomy (“right to choose”) championed by secular society and, sadly, the US Supreme Court. Many now see euthanasia as a topic of political discussion, not an abomination.
The Three-Fold Duty of Honor
Against this backdrop, we have the teachings of our beloved Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who because of advancing age and illness manifests an intense solidarity with the elderly and the sick. In his 1999 Letter to the Elderly, he writes: “If life is a pilgrimage toward our heavenly home, then old age is the most natural time to look toward the threshold of eternity.”
The Holy Father recognizes that with advancing age the natural hope proper to youth is peeled away. The elderly are then left with the acute awareness of their own mortality, often accompanied by pain and loneliness. Yet, through faith and the supernatural virtue of hope, Christians understand the twilight of life as a passage from the fragile and uncertain joy of this world to the fullness of joy which the Lord holds in store for His faithful servants: “Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt 25:21).
The pope calls the rest of us to treasure the elderly in our midst, and to do so with great love and generosity. Their experience, wisdom, and witness contribute much to the family and to society. He adds that honoring older people involves the three-fold duty of welcoming them, helping them, and making use of their gifts. He also stresses that “the most natural place to spend one's old age continues to be the environment in which one feels most 'at home,' among family members, acquaintances, and friends, where one can still make oneself useful.”
Pope John Paul II by no means denigrates but rather praises “homes for the elderly,” especially those run by religious communities and volunteer groups that are committed to the care of the aged. What is most important, especially as we increasingly become a graying society, is to counter the culture of death by promoting a widespread attitude of acceptance and appreciation of the elderly, particularly within the family, so that our loved ones like my Mom may grow old with dignity.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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