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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Meditation: The Value of the Elderly Sick

Every Sunday I take Communion to five residents of a local nursing home in Woodstock, VA. I only take two hosts because of swallowing issues with several individuals and the possibility that someone will not be able to receive. Since Jesus is entirely present in each particle of the host I don't deprive anyone, and it ensures the hosts are consumed. What a privilege to bear the Savior to these dear souls.

Each time I visit is a unique experience and today illustrated that. When my husband and I arrived we found Linda (I'm not using real names to protect the privacy of the residents) in the TV room. Linda has Alzheimers and is frustrated sometimes over not being able to remember things, but she almost always recognizes me as the lady who brings her Jesus, and what a smile she gives me along with a cheery greeting. I took her out to the lounge and showed her pictures of our newborn granddaughter and than prayed with her and gave her Communion. Linda always engages in a verbal dialogue with the Lord she loves so much. "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for coming to me. I love you so much. I want to be with you. Please when it's my time take me to live with you."  Her prayer is always similar, very simple, and filled with the language of love.

When Linda first arrived at the nursing home she was distraught because she had attended daily Mass and missed it so much. Coincedentally, one of the staff came up to talk to me the same day I was visiting Linda to say Father would come to see her and then I would bring her Communion every Sunday. She was thrilled!  Later she begged me to take her to the Church for Mass so she attended the Good Friday service with us. It was a challenge because she couldn't remember how to get into the car. We had to instruct her, guard her head, and help her lift her legs up. But she was so happy to be in the church again. Later a staff member told me she couldn't remember how to use a fork. Alzheimers is such a debilitating disease, but it has not robbed Linda of her sunny disposition and enthusiasm. And she spreads it around.

After Linda received Communion I took her back to the TV room where she sat with her special friend, Bill. Bill's wife, who was also in the home, died about a year ago. He has taken Linda under his wing and treats her with such consideration and tenderness. She may not remember his name (sometimes she doesn't remember her own), but she responds to his kindness. And she is so cheerful she is like a ray of sunshine for both the residents and the staff. Later, while we were waiting in the hall to visit another patient who was being dressed, Linda came by looking for her room. One of the aides had to take her there because she couldn't find it. But she always remembers why I've come, and lights up like a candle to meet her Lord.

When we took Linda back to the TV room Jimmy was sitting there. He had on a T-shirt that had a red and white necktie and a button down collar printed on it. Verry snazzy. We admired it and with a big smile he said he got dressed up for Sunday. Jimmy has Alzheimers as well and he often tells us he is going to buy a car and drive home to Canada for a visit. He was in the U.S. Air Force for one tour and then was a bus driver and drove a mobile lounge at Dulles. He loves to share his enthusiasm for travel and woodworking. Today he told me he'd bring me a souvenier from Canada. I asked him for a maple leaf, a real maple leaf. I think Jimmy really believes he is going to drive back to Canada. I wish he could.

Last Sunday our granddaughter Madeleine visited with us and Jimmy promised to make her a little plaque that said "Princess" on it. He had a drawing and it was very sweet. Jimmy used to do beautiful woodworking. He showed us a crucifix he made when he was twelve that is an impressive piece of work, but that kind of hobby requires sharp tools that are no doubt beyond him. But he obviously dreams it and imagines it.
After giving Jimmy Communion we went up the hall to see Angela. She was outside her room in a recliner. When Angela first came to the home she was very sharp and alert. She would often ask us questions about something we told her previously. "Did you have a good time in Texas?...Are your visitors still here?...Did you go horseback riding last week?" Angela has grown very frail now and her voice is so soft I can barely hear her. But she is still alert enough to ask me, "Are you in a hurry?" if she thinks I'm leaving too soon. And when we begin the Sign of the Cross she always joins in.
Our next stop was to see Lolly and her roommate, Ellen. Ellen was sitting in the hall holding a glass of chocolate milk, but the door of the room was closed so we decided to visit Dorry and come back to give both Lolly and Ellen Communion at the same time. Dorry isn't Catholic but we had a conversation in the hall one day and have become fast friends. We always stop for a visit. She loves to talk about her husband who was a truck driver and how kind he was and good to her. One of her favorite stories is about a confrontation with a bear along the Skyline Drive. It was so close to her she just stood still, but she had the presence of mind to say, "Tom, take a picture. No one will ever believe this." He did and then the bear lumbered off. But there was no film in the camera!
Dorry has few visitors because most of her family are gone and she and Tom lived in Maryland so her friends are not nearby. Today the curtain was pulled around her bed and we couldn't go in, so we went back to give Communion to Ellen and Lolly. The door was still closed, but Jimmy was sitting with Ellen and helping her with her chocolate milk. "Would you like more," he would ask tenderly and give it to her. Ellen is another Alzheimer's patient and she rarely speaks, but she has a smile like an angel. For quite awhile I didn't realize she was Catholic until one of the staff mentioned it. I had noticed that she would always join in part of the Our Father and she would make the Sign of the Cross. But today was a real revelation. She responded to Jimmy with several full sentences. So I told her Jimmy was from Canada and asked where she was from. Ellen couldn't answer but Jimmy and I chatted about him speaking French. "Je m'appelle Marianne. Comment vous appellez-vous?" Jimmy said something in French and darned if Ellen didn't respond with an entire sentence "en Francais." It was a real revelation. 
At that point the aide came out of the room, Jimmy went off, and we took Ellen in and gave both her and Lolly Communion. Lolly is hard of hearing but usually very alert. Today, however, she was acting upset and paranoid. She misses her home and has refused to go with her children for holidays and other visits "because I don't want to come back." After I gave her and Ellen Communion I took her hands in mine. She said, "You're hands are so warm; I'm always cold." I got her a jacket from the closet and helped her put it on and then just encouraged her and told her how much Jesus loves her. 
She wears a miraculous medal I brought her and I took it out from under her shirt and put her hand up to grip it. "Mary is your Mother; you are never alone. Ask for her help." Poor Lolly has declined a lot in the years since we first met, but the blessing is that she returned to the Church after a lifetime away. She was a Catholic when she married her husband, a Baptist. She left the faith. Ironically, her husband abandoned the family, but she raised all the children Baptist. I always remind her when she bewails being in a nursing home that she would not be a practicing Catholic if she hadn't come there. And we wouldn't have met I remind her. I love Lolly and she returns the favor and always asks if I'll be back next week.
These darling old people are the ones that the world says are leading lives not worth living. And yet they have a purpose, an important purpose. They call forth our capacity to love. I admire the staff. Over the seven years I've been going to the nursing home I've watched the motherly kindness of these caregivers. Most of them are models of patience. And the residents are models of suffering. I often ask for their prayers because God loves the prayers of suffering souls.
Fr. John Hardon, a dear and holy Jesuit, used to say only little people get into heaven. As I watch these elderly people become more and more like children, I think of those words. Nursing homes are the ante room of heaven where souls become smaller and smaller so they can fit into the heart of Jesus where they belong. Pray for the elderly and those who care for them. Both are engaged in important work. Both are engaged in beautiful vocations.

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