Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

Posts Tagged ‘aging’

Aging as a Spiritualizing Process — Part Two

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The aging Presbyterian minister prayed, “…God, forgive us for our anger when the nurses do not answer the call bell. And for our annoyance when the food is cold. And for…” This went on for a few minutes. OH MY.

I thought it was a good idea. I was preparing to lead the nursing home’s Sunday morning worship service. I asked one of the residents, Horace, to give the morning prayer. He had pastored for well over 50 years and even performed a wedding for a nurses’ aid while he was a resident. Always the pastor.

So, I stood next to his wheelchair and handed him the wireless microphone at the proper time. He started well enough, “Dear Lord,” followed by some nice things to say about the day and the good Lord. Then the more honest prayer kicked in.

This was not what I had planned.

Then again, I had no idea what it was like to be so dependent on others, especially when those others let you down.

Aging forces us to grow spiritually

Last week, I started exploring “aging as a spiritualizing process.” My plan this week was to unpack an article in theJournal of Religion & Aging on this very topic. I first read that article around the time of the above-mentioned “honest prayer.”

That piece, “Aging as a Spiritualizing Process,” suggests that aging forces some spiritual practices and virtues on us that we should have learned years before. Here are a few bullets from that article:

  • Doing vs. Being: When physical limitations restrict our activities, we finally learn this lesson of the importance of just “being” rather than always “doing.”
  • Contingency: Intellectually, we all know we are going to die. As we age and more of our contemporaries die, it starts to sink in that this fact of death is beyond our control. We “take nothing for granted—thankful for even the next breath.”
  • Enfleshment: Aches, pain, and disabilities bring home the most basic Hebraic biblical understanding that “We do not have a body, we are a body.”

Not Pollyanna

This is no “Pollyanna approach” to aging and disability — no unflagging optimism, no “let’s see what we can be glad about.” And that’s okay. We can also express the honesty of my friend, the praying pastor, who was having trouble with the tardiness of nurses and cold food. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross did list “anger” and “depression” as aspects of dying.

No one put this more eloquently than Flannery O’Connor, the great writer of Southern fiction, who suffered from lupus for 13 years before she died at age 39 in 1964:

“I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company; where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

Aging as a Spiritualizing Process — Part One

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“Growing old is no good,” the 95-year-old nursing home resident told me. I asked her when it got to being “no good.” She thought for a moment and then said, “About 80.”

“What made it ‘no good’ at that time?” I wanted to know. Without hesitation she said, “When I couldn’t do things for myself anymore.”

I told her daughter of this conversation and she said, “Oh yeah, it was about that time I came into her home, and she was standing on the kitchen table changing a light bulb in the ceiling fixture.”

This resident perfectly summarized the fear of aging; the issue is really the loss of independence. Who wants that? But decline and dependence is the future for most of us, except for the few who will die suddenly while still active.

The minister’s role of “presence and witness”

That conversation, which I also recount in my book, happened over thirty years ago. The young(ish) chaplain who heard those words is now part of the “elderly class.”

So I thought of my own elderly status and that long ago conversation as I read a recent article from Kaiser Health News, “Minister for Seniors at Famed Church Confronts Ageism and the Shame It Brings.”

Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper of the Riverside Church in New York City, sees her role with congregants in their decline as one of “presence and witness.” “Sometimes if people are going through really difficult experiences, especially medically, it’s easy for the story of the illness and the suffering to take over,” Rev. Harper said. “Part of my role is to affirm the other dimensions.”

Harper is right — it’s about presence. I found it was the same in ministering to nursing home residents and hospice patients. I could not take away the pain of loss of independence. I could not lighten the heavy weight that serious illness put on my patients’ psyches. But I could be present.

It was, in a way, easy. I just had to show up.

Acceptance of death without fear — why wait?

I was drawn to another of Harper’s comments. Yes, old folks do worry about what their last days will be like — whether there will be suffering. But she “rarely encounter[ed] a fearfulness about what will happen when someone dies.”

This acceptance of death without fear is common. It may or may not have a religious element to it but, in general, those approaching death have reached a degree of serenity. Acceptance without fear.

I say this acceptance is a spiritual process whether one expresses it in religious terms or not. In a sense, aging forces this spiritual acceptance upon us all. We could do it earlier in life, and many do, but toward the end, after losing independence, we tend to accept and just let things be.

If we could learn how to accept the certainty of death earlier in life, our whole life could be more peaceful. Growing old forces this spiritual practice upon us. This is just one facet of aging as a spiritualizing process.

When Are We Dying?

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Boulder, Colorado

I am here visiting my mother who is closer to the end of life with Alzheimer’s. We moved her here from Tampa a year ago so my sister could be an “in-town” caregiver. My brother and I travel to Colorado every few months to see mom and support my sister, he from Florida and me from Virginia.

Thinking that we all are “dying” is not so helpful

I say “closer” which is not such a helpful term as we all are closer to our dying than we were. So we are all “dying.” Every one of us will die sooner or later. But thinking of us all as “dying” may not be helpful in making treatment decisions.

We make different medical choices for the young and healthy than we do for the old and infirm. When we are young and otherwise healthy, aggressive medical treatment to cure a cancer caught in its early stages seems quite appropriate. Wait a minute! I thought I said we are all dying so why would we treat a dying person to cure cancer. See . . . thinking that we all are “dying” is not so helpful in making treatment decisions.

So, mom, age 92, has been going through the stages of dementia for at least seven years. We have taken over her finances, her medical treatment decisions, even the move to Boulder was all ours. We didn’t even pretend that she had a say in the matter.

When do we say she is dying? I have observed in my years as a healthcare chaplain that we reserve the word “dying” for the last hours or days of a person’s life. Sometimes we even say a patient is “actively dying” which is a strange oxymoron. Often this type patient is nonresponsive, not eating nor drinking . . . doing nothing . . . and we say actively dying. What’s that about?

“The last phase of life,” can last from hours to years.

I now characterize my mother’s condition and those like her as being in “the last phase of life.” This phase can last from hours to years. Like my father before her, my mom indeed has been in this phase for years. Being in the “last phase” informs our decisions about her care. Our goal for her at this stage of life, following her instructions, is to prepare for a comfortable and dignified death.

My friend Dr. Joanne Lynn instructs her physician colleagues to ask themselves, “If I heard that this patient had died in the next six months, would I say to myself ‘I am not surprised’?” If someone’s death would not be surprising then they are in the “last phase.” In addition, they probably would qualify for hospice.

Decisions are easier in the last phase when we are looking to prepare for a comfortable and dignified death. Hospitalization, CPR, surgery, a feeding tube . . . all highly unlikely to be compatible with a comfort goal.

Medical decisions may be easier but the emotional and spiritual work continues. It has been hard to watch our once vital and fun-loving mother wither into a shell of her former self. We have been grieving. But we are very much at ease with the goal of comfort care in this last phase of life.

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