The End Game
I take Communion on Sundays to six people at a nursing home. Five are suffering from Alzheimers or dementia. One is a lady with many physical problems, but as sharp as a tack mentally. The staff at the nursing home are wonderful. They treat everyone with kindness and gentleness. I have seen an aide spend half an hour patiently feeding a patient who can't remember how to use a fork. That same patient usually smiles when I sing "Jesus loves me..." before I give her Communion. Another Catholic resident is a former organist who can still sit down at the piano and play all the old hymns. We went through a hymnal one day singing half a dozen songs together. He remembered how to play and sang all the words accurately. But he often says things that, in the eyes of the world, would be labeled "crazy." He lives in Alzheimers World most of the time.
I love all these dear people. Last Sunday after I had a short Communion service for three patients on the Alzheimers wing, I started giving hugs. After I hugged two of the Catholics (The third is a dear German lady who preferred a pat.) I went around offering hugs to every patient in the room. "Would you like a hug?" I asked one sour-looking lady. "I sure would she responded with a smile." Not a single person turned me down so I think I will make this part of my routine from now on.
These people are not "useless eaters." They are spiritual children, dependent and innocent in their decline. Doesn't that make sense in God's plan? We come into the world as little children. Why would God not let us exit in the same way? And we can learn a lot about patience and unconditional love by leaving our cold world of facts and entering into Alzheimer's World with a loved one.
Father John Hardon, S.J., one of my heroes, whom I believe will one day be canonized a saint, often said that only little people get into heaven. The residents at the nursing home are little ones. Just as I love my darling grandchildren, I love these dear ones who face an ultimate challenge at the end of their lives. They are a gift to us who have the opportunity to serve them.
I feel sorry for Jerome Medalie, the subject of the article above. In his pride, he is too big to accept becoming little and helpless. I can't really blame him. Having my own health challenges, I understand something about fear of the future. I imagine the realization that you are entering the fog of Alzheimers or dementia is a painful transition at the beginning. But there comes a time when you have become, once again, the little one in your mother's care. You still can respond to her love. We have a responsibility not to abandon the most vulnerable. How we care for them shows exactly what we're made of!