He gently leads his dad down the aisle. Mass is about to begin and he knows it will take a few minutes to get him settled. The son’s hand firmly grasped around dad’s elbow, they continue slowly, carefully, to their favourite pew. The younger instructs the elder to hold the back of the pew in front of him and he guides his father gently down into the seat. He places the sturdy cane on the floor and then helps dad remove his scarf and overcoat. The old man insists on standing when the entrance hymn begins and so his son expertly supports the father’s elbow and helps him up. Every Sunday the ritual is the same.
“Mom hasn’t been feeling well in the past few days,” the daughter explained as she let the nurse into the house. “We don’t know what’s wrong with her. Can you talk to her?” Two unmarried daughters; one very sick mom. One daughter is able to work from home, the other daughter works very odd hours so her work day can finish by noon and she can come home to help care for mom. Mom worries that caring for her is killing the daughters but they say they are only doing a little of what she has always done for them.
His responsibilities at the seminary kept him very busy and his dad’s mental and physical health were deteriorating quickly. Every time his phone rang, he checked to see if it was the nursing home. It was sometimes very difficult caring for his dad, especially since it was just the two of them, but each time the nurses asked him to come, he dropped everything and hurried over. Everyone at the seminary banded together to give the father of one of their own a beautiful funeral.
His mom’s Alzheimer’s Disease had progressed and she was unable to remain at home. Denied a leave of absence, he resigned his position. Each day, he would go to the nursing home to be with her, feed her, love her. “It was nice,” he reminisced, a peaceful smile lighting up his face.
Dad had been in the hospital for two weeks, diagnosed with pneumonia which is common in the very late stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Death was imminent and my mom refused to go home. The nurses gave her a cot so she could spend the night and I made a make-shift bed from some chairs in the palliative care room. Exhausted, mom fell asleep as soon as she lay down. It had been a very long day keeping vigil at dad’s bedside. I alternated between lying down to rest and listening to dad’s laboured breathing. “Terry,” said the kindly palliative care doctor, “you have to stop thinking like a nurse now and just be his daughter.” I cried when he said that because I knew what he meant. At about 5:30 in the morning, I noted a significant change in dad’s breathing. The trauma of watching dad die would have been too much for mom in her state of early dementia so I let her sleep. Instinctively, I grabbed my rosary and began praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. At 5:53 a.m. I put my rosary away and went to find dad’s nurse. Then I woke mom up. In her confusion, she thought she had watched him die.
After Ruth’s and Orpah’s husbands died, their widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, instructed them to return to their families so that they may marry again. Naomi now had no sons and no husband. She was elderly and alone. Orpah did as her mother-in-law told her. Ruth clung to Naomi, saying: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16-17).
As the King of the world hung on the cross, he turned his bruised and bloodied face toward His mother and the apostle He loved, John. “Behold, your mother,” he said, and John took her home and cared for her.
Looking after elderly, often ailing parents is not for the faint of heart. It requires courage, stamina, patience, and the willingness to sacrifice many things—time, sleep, career, finances, control, relationships. These are the same things we sacrifice when we have children but now the children have become the caregivers and the concerns are on a grander, more urgent scale.
It is heartbreaking when parents lose precious memories and devastating when they forget the names of their family members. Watching the strongest person in the universe transform into a completely dependent state reminds us of our own mortality. Journeying with a parent at the end of their life and keeping vigil until death matures a person in a way that nothing else can. In sickness and in death, they continue to teach us priceless lessons of patience, forgiveness, compassion, faith, and redemptive suffering.
When we care for mom and dad, we are given in a unique way, the grace of uniting ourselves to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross. We experience our own suffering in the enormity of our responsibility. At the same time, we are Simon of Cyrene and Veronica, providing aid and comfort to mom and dad as they carry their cross that is too heavy for them to bear alone.
There is no doubt that caring for elderly parents can be challenging and exhausting. Through no fault of their own, many people break under the strain. At the same time, it is a great grace to be able to share such a significant part of their life. It is an honour to show the person who bore us, raised us and loved us that their life matters, their contribution is important, and that their love for us is not in vain.
Photo courtesy of guardian.co.uk.