Pontifex Says: Neglecting the Elderly = Covert Euthanasia. The Justice Issue We Ignore.

It was not without reason my friend John rebelled at the thought of going into a nursing home: the majority (60%) of nursing home residents have no visitors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that more than 50% of nursing home residents have no close relatives and an incredible 46% have no living children. When you compound those numbers with the astounding estimate that as many as nine out of 10 U.S. nursing homes are understaffed (and many of those staff are underpaid), you can begin to see why the institutions are dreaded and feared–and why many people quickly decline when they enter them.

When he was a cardinal, Pope Francis remarked that ignoring the elderly amounts to “covert euthanasia.” We’re guilty of this by the simple fact that Pope Francis’ comments on World Youth Day about women and the gay community received widespread media attention, while these remarks merited little to no attention whatsoever:

“A people has a future if [they] go forward with both elements: with the young, who have the strength, and things move forward because they do the carrying, and with the elderly, because they are the ones who give life’s wisdom. […] We do the elderly an injustice. We set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us.”

My friend John played the saxophone in multi-racial jazz bands in New York City in the 1930s and served his community as a volunteer firefighter for 50 years without once missing a meeting. He was similarly faithful as a church member and Sunday school teacher, and the consummate family man. His hair turned prematurely white after he used his bayonet to gently probe the sands of Iwo Jima for hidden explosives to deactivate. After being shot, he spent more than two years in military hospitals battling infection and fighting to keep his life and his leg. When I was a ballet-obsessed 10-year-old, he built me my very own barre out of repurposed scraps.

What could a young evangelical have taught him about cultural engagement, creativity, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, generosity, thrift, courage, or suffering? What young evangelical could not have failed to learn a thing or two from his long and remarkably full life?

I certainly did.

As the ranks of older Americans continue to swell, we who are young must reject the cultural narratives equating aging with decline and increasing irrelevance. We must resist the falsehood that it’s our generation that really “gets” it and realize how much older people have to teach us.

And we must remember to call and visit the older people in our lives—bringing coffee and compassion, leaving behind the condescension—remembering they were once as young as we, and that, if God wills, we will one day be as old as they.

{from my first–and recent–contribution to Q Ideas. Please click through to read it all.}

What Not To Do When There’s Nothing Much You Can Do

I don’t like goodbyes.

For years, when my mother and I are about to say goodbye–when the visit is drawing to a close, say, or one of us (why is it always me?) is about to take off on a new adventure–we have picked inane fights with one another.

We are quite expert at inane arguments. My dad once happened upon us in the kitchen, debating passionately, even Talmudically about seltzer.

Yes. Sparkling water. Seltzer. Fighting about it. With religious fervor. I don’t recall the specifics, just that my dad walked in and surveyed the scene silently, and then pointed out, very calmly:

“You’re arguing. About seltzer.”

The truth is that we are the best of friends, and saying goodbye is hard, and for whatever neurotic reason, it’s feels easier to pretend that we are furious at each other and can’t wait to get rid of the other than it is just to CRY and say I’ll miss you.

Is it possible that something similar happens when we are faced with old age or incurable disease?

In response to Monday’s post, one of my friends commented on the “manufactured controversies” that whip evangelicals into frenzies online, noting (as I did) that we are often very selective in what we get outraged over:

Bikinis? YES!

Shackling laboring inmates? NO!

‘Biblical’ gender roles? YES!

Unjust wages? NO!

Something dumb that John Piper just said? YES YES YES!

The same commenter noted:

Another social injustice [that's] invisible to Facebook is our casual neglect of the elderly.


I was talking to a friend recently who was off to see visit someone who was very, very ill. The friend mentioned feeling a bit nervous–which I think is really normal. Hospitals and nursing homes and hospices are not, generally speaking, cheery places, and it is awful to see people we once knew in their strength and vigor laid waste by old age or disease.

It’s easier push them from our minds, be upset about other things, forget that they exist, or try to fix them than it is just to BE WITH the old and the dying.

One of my favorite cartoons from the Dad archives sums this up well:

echinaceaWhen there’s nothing more to be done, it feels easier to just to stay away, or to pick a fight within ourselves that justifies our staying away:

“It makes me feel sad to see her in that condition.”

“He probably doesn’t even know I’m there.”

I’m no expert at any of this. I will admit that I dragged myself to the nursing home sometimes to visit Mr. and Mrs. S.: it is all so depressing. Sometimes there were things to do: potted plants to be watered, eyeglasses to be found and cleaned, shoes to be tied and nail polish to be applied, not to mention meals to be eaten and coffee to be drunk.

At the end, though, there is very little to do except simply to be. You resist the urge to have little seltzer arguments within yourself and just sit there for a long goodbye.

But I think that something similar is true for many of us with our everyday little traumas. We would like to escape the pain of them by bickering over seltzer; to pretend that the natural remedy du jour is just waiting to fix what ails us; to find a way to avert our eyes even from what is happening right before them.

I’ve just finished writing several different pieces about David Rakoff’s posthumously published novel-in-verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which is a remarkable book because it sugarcoats nothing and is much concerned with death and the various kinds of small torments we humans inflict on each other, and yet, at the same time, is one of the most hopeful and life-affirming books I’ve read in ages.

What to do when there’s nothing much you can do?

Don’t bicker. Don’t try to fix. Don’t bring echinacea.

Just bring a little beauty, and a little kindness.

I’ll Meet You In The Place Where the Stuffed Kitties Are Real

Mrs. S. died a few months ago. She was 92, although woe betide you should you have mentioned that fact to her; she maintained to the end that she was 91. And who are we to argue?

She also maintained that the stuffed cats in her room were real. This was not actually a point of contention, but a matter of settled fact, one that I, and, mercifully, most of her caregivers at the nursing home, entered into in all seriousness. She would hold the cats and stroke them with concentration, talking to them softly, much the same sort of encounter she had with all her cats the entire time I knew her, which is to say, most of my life, and, if reports are accurate, much the same as she had done her entire life.


(At night, she said, the windows and doors would sometimes fly open, and dozens of puppies and kitties would come running into the room. It was very funny, she said, chuckling a little.)

This is not to suggest that Mrs. S. had ‘lost it’ or was ‘suffering dementia’ or whatever other clinical or dismissive term we might put to it. To be sure, there were times when she was confused, speaking as if out of a dream, but much about her remained unchanged nearly to the end. She was patient in affliction, tolerant of people’s shortcomings, and deeply confident.

“There’s just not enough work for me to do here,” she’d complain. (She was almost entirely paralyzed, but her sense of her own limitation wavered.) “I don’t know how I’ll manage to put the house back together; I’m afraid it’s all been put out of sorts since I’ve been gone.”

“I’ll help you,” I offered, knowing, of course, that she would never go home.

“Oh, you have enough to do!” she told me. “You are very busy.”

“I’ll make the time,” I said. “You’re a good girl,” she said.

Once Mrs. S. could no longer take solid foods, and the Fannie Farmer project—wherein I’d made dishes of the creamed and breaded and glazed variety so beloved of the WASPier members of the Greatest Generation—was over, I turned to puddings, which I’d bring after the dinner hour, when we’d sit in her room and watch Jeopardy. This was not the idle turning-to-television instead of conversation brought on by the degradations of age; we’d gone to the S. house to watch television since I’d been tiny, since we only got one channel, and that frequently snowy and full of static. We came for the Super Bowl and other big events; on ordinary days, we watched the news and the game shows, and there was always a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, or, even better, a box of Andes mints, or, best of all, a carton of After Eight chocolate mints.

The first time I ever visited Greenport—the place in this world that I think of as ‘home,’ though I’ve traveled and lived far from there most of my adult life and, if I’m counting years, much of my childhood too—I ate at her table, slept at her house. I can remember nothing specific about that first visit, except a sense of deep and satisfying comfort. There was nothing unctuous about her hospitality; nothing pretentious or flashy, just a dignified ease to her welcome. I could play with the Barbies that were older than my mother, dress them in the clothes that, even as an eight year old, I recognized as incredibly superior in quality to those available in the 1980s. I could have a cold drink or a hot one; I could tag along behind Mr. S. as he made things out of wood and ask a thousand questions; I could feed the cats and try to catch the skittish ones in my scrawny arms for an entirely one-sided hug.

I was not just playing along with an old lady’s dementia the day I carefully took her kitten—the one pictured above and below—home to wash him and return him the next day.

(She stroked him and asked him to behave himself. Which he did, naturally.)

And there was nothing imaginative or fanciful in my promise to help Mrs. S. put her house to rights when she returned home. I was, rather, meeting her in the place she was, a place as real and true as her home in Greenport with its sensible furniture, beef stew, vintage Barbies and percale sheets. A place where her hands were not enfeebled by age and paralysis but were still the strong confident hands of an Army nurse, a woman who assisted surgeries and calmed the soldiers who shrieked in the night in the psychiatric ward where she worked during the war. A place where she daily and for decades bound up the still-weeping Purple Heart wounds of her husband; a place where she cooked meals and ironed shirts and petted cats and treasured her beautiful, carefully-kept china.

Place, Robert Farrar Capon writes, does not merely mean ‘location.’ Place is about encounter between beings. The kingdom of God cannot be plotted out by longitude and latitude; it is instead the place where God meets us, and we meet God and one another, with all the justice and love and goodness of heaven.

“What really matters [in the question of ‘place’] is not where we are, but who—what real beings—are with us. In that sense, heaven, where we see God face to face through the risen flesh of Jesus, may well be the placiest of all places, as it is the most gloriously material of all meetings. Here, perhaps, we do indeed see only through a glass darkly; we mistake one of the earthly husks of place for the heart of its mattering.” (The Supper of the Lamb)

My mom brought the kitten with her to Malawi; one of Mrs. S.’s last ‘things,’ a thing that she encountered with all the love and tenderness she ever had for every animal—and everything, really—that she ever touched. A bit of the placiness of Greenport—of Mrs. S.—is there when I look into his plastic button eyes.

I’ll take care of him for her, for now.

Photo on 2013-04-12 at 09.16

Admitting Secret Desires

So I’m back to regularly bringing Saturday night dinners to Mrs. S. at the nursing home. While I long ago gave up on cooking for her from Fannie Farmer (Ms. Fannie’s recipes being a bit too unreliable for my taste), I do try to cook foods that are familiar to Mrs. S., who also enjoys occasional take out from Brick Oven Pizza (who around here doesn’t?) and random mid-week visits with coffee and donuts from Blue Duck Bakery (again, who wouldn’t?)

One of the reasons (I think) that the S’s marriage lasted truly ’til death did them part was that they both loved to please the other. And food was a big part of that love language. When Mr. S retired from working, he decided that they’d eat many of their dinners in restaurants so that Mrs. S could ‘retire,’ too–his way of thanking her for the decades of excellent meals which he spoke well of pretty much to his dying day.

But whereas Mr. S was usually forthcoming with what he liked and didn’t like, Mrs. S has always been much quieter. So much so, that a few weeks ago, I had to pry her dessert request out of her.

(I don’t always ask her what she wants. Just sometimes.)

Me: What do you want for dessert next week? Whatever you ask for, I’ll make it.

Edie: Brownies are the easiest.

Me: I don’t want to do what’s easiest! I want to do what you want.

Edie: I don’t know if I should say.

Me: Mousse? Pie? Any kind of pie? Rice pudding?

Edie: No, not rice pudding…they give us that a lot here, and it doesn’t taste homemade.

Me: Tell me what you want!

Edie: says nothing, looks away, ashamed.

Me: (thinking: what is she possibly thinking of? A cake out of which Chippendales pop?)

Edie: (uncomfortably) I’d like a chocolate layer cake. With chocolate frosting.

Me: (thinking: is that all? Finally!)

And so on Saturday morning, I pulled out my stand mixer, made a terrific mess:

and a classic chocolate layer cake from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook:

To tell the truth, I’m not altogether sure that Mrs. S even remembered asking for the chocolate layer cake. And her appetite was smaller than usual, so she ended up eating only half of it. But neither of those things matters.

What matters to me is that she was able, finally, to admit her secret desire, and that, by God’s grace, I was able to meet it.

I’m still trying to figure out why that feels important, right and good.

Maybe it’s because I read somewhere that American women are embarrassed to buy candy bars.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a tradition that taught that all (or at least most) desires are evil and not to be fulfilled.

Maybe it’s because admitting desires takes trust and facilitates closeness.

What do you think? Did you grow up in a tradition that taught you to be suspicious of desires? When have you experienced freedom and pleasure in admitting what you want?

Grace and a Steak Dinner

Mr. S’s favorite food has always been steak. He’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of man. As in, pizza is, for him, “ethnic” food. His roots go down deep in New England-style cooking, and the rich influence of US immigration on American cuisine has done little to alter his palate.

He’s always been a great eater, Mr. S. And Mrs. S was, in her day, a great cook. After their retirement, they ate in restaurants a lot, because Mr. S wanted to give her a break from the endless multiple-course cooking that she did day in, day out for many decades.

When I was little, Mister and Misses (as we called them for short) used to have my family over for dinner, and, more commonly, would take us out for dinner. These dinners were, invariably, meat-and-potato affairs: steak and baked potato, hamburger platters, and the like. Mister always ate very slowly (“I don’t eat. I dine,” he would insist) but he ate quite a bit.

These days, though, Mister’s appetite isn’t very good. And although, these days, slabs of meat rarely feature in my cooking, I decided that I would suspend my own preferences and make an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes dinner for Mister and Misses’ Saturday-night meal.

mushrooms dissolving in butter. um yum yum.

I consulted Fannie on the particulars, of course, and prepared, according to her wisdom, a broiled rib-eye with a mushroom cream sauce, roast potatoes, and green beans.

This here mushroom cream sauce? TOTALLY great on green beans.

And for dessert, a chocolate chiffon pie in a (gluten-free!) chocolate-coconut shell, all at Fannie’s direction.

what a mess! it actually turned into a good pie shell, though.

and the finished pie. yum! next time I want to make a mocha one.

(The first custard filling came out dreadfully. I washed it down the drain, and told Misses about it at dinner. “That happens sometimes, oh yes,” she said in her quiet, gracious way.)

curdled custard. gag me.

Mister still didn’t eat much, but he thanked me several times. “I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this is really special. The closest thing we get to steak here is a Salisbury steak that’s only 1/2″ thick.”

(Misses has never been much of a talker, but she cleaned her plates with relish.)

This meal got me thinking. On one hand, a meat-heavy diet is something I’ve got all kinds of concerns about. On the other, I see my friends, in their 90s, with very few comforts and pleasures in life. I might be happy with some vegetarian curry and brown rice–but a meal like that would do nothing for them. And so I can’t help but think that a steak dinner is the best I can do for them.

So I did it. And, oh, they may thank me, but honestly, for how glad I am to cook for them, and watch them enjoy some comfort food, I should be thanking them.

And maybe that joy is just a taste of the reward Jesus says we’ll get when we invite those who can’t repay to our banquet. (Or, you know, bring the banquet to them.) Maybe this meal is unsustainable on a global scale. Probably it is. (The veggies were from the garden, though.) Some people say old folks don’t even have sensitive taste buds any more. Maybe they don’t.

But maybe pouring expensive perfume on the feet of a man who’s about to die is an extravagant waste, too.

And then again, maybe not.