By Hilda Lethe-Drake
“In the first half of life we are all naturally preoccupied with establishing ourselves, climbing, achieving, and performing,” says the publisher’s summary of Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. “But as we grow older and encounter challenges and mistakes, we need to see ourselves in a more life-giving way. This message of falling down — that is in fact moving upwards — is the most resisted and counterintuitive of messages in the world’s religions.”
The benefits of failure do not make sense for our culture. However, working with the elderly every day, I meet some people who are aging with amazing grace. Being in their presence on a regular basis helped me see the counterintuitive work of aging bearing astounding fruit in real life. There are always some who are suffering, some who are difficult, and some who are moving through life with simplicity and compassion, planting wisdom and kindness in future generations. Some of the suffering people are the same ones who are doing the graceful work of aging.
Bill had a dent in his forehead where his dad hit him with a baseball bat when he was 9 or 10. I learned from one of his daughters that he was not kind to his wife in their younger years, but now he always sang her praises. He intentionally said kind things every day to staff and community members of the day center. He had a lot of stories to tell. In the telling and re-telling, he was doing the work of exposing his life to the new grace of the present — a present where he had good care, knew himself to be loved by God, and worked his way into the hearts of all his caregivers.
Kathleen was Irish and had a twinkle in her eye that would have made many believe she was part leprechaun. If there was anyone new at the day center, she welcomed them to her table for coffee or lunch. Every staff member — CNA, nurse, doctor, chaplain, social worker, therapist — knew they were her personal favorite. She told to me that she was not afraid to die, but she was weary to the bone of the many twists and turns in the road. It was especially embarrassing that she required help to the bathroom — every time, every day, and sometimes she did not make it in time. True to her Catholic training, she “offered it up” and learned to wear diapers. With the many changes she had to cope with, Kathleen was able to wonder what the new lesson might be. She refused to let her gift of a positive attitude be drowned out by life’s vicissitudes.
Sam was a successful businessman who lost everything shortly before he joined our program. The social worker came to me and said, “I have never had an intake meeting like this one.” His response to several of the questions were surprising but the one that really caught her attention was when she asked, “Is there anything you would still like to do, or place you would like to visit?” Sam said, “If there are people I have hurt, I would like to ask their forgiveness.” He wanted to sow the seeds of peace. Sam had dementia. His illness progressed from moderate to severe. But he left his social worker and chaplain with a mission of peace, forgiveness and wonder that has lasted for over a decade.
Working with the elderly is a growing opportunity as baby boomers continue to age. It is a perfect fit for the gifts of chaplaincy, of listening and calm presence. Our training is especially well suited to support the work of aging and recognize its gifts. I highly recommend working in long-term care.
Hilda Lethe-Drake has worked in long term care in a PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) program for the last 12 years. She recently retired and is looking forward to putting into practice the things she learned from her beloved elders.