By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
(This is the second in a series focused on Respect Life Month, which is the month of October.)
Msgr. Drake Shafer of St. Ann Parish in Long Grove received a call from a longtime parishioner who recently moved into a retirement community with his wife. Her health has been slipping over the last year and on this day she seemed agitated. Her husband thought a visit from their pastor might help.
When Msgr. Shafer arrived, he called the wife by name and said, “‘Let’s pray a little bit,’ and immediately she began to calm down.” They prayed the Our Father and the Hail Mary, prayers deeply ingrained, and deeply comforting. “For many of the elderly, that relationship with God and their spiritual life is helping them make the transition” to the final chapter in their earthly lives, the priest said.
Coming to terms with an elderly loved one’s limitations, and need for skilled care, can be agonizing for families. Msgr. Shafer hopes that the Synod of Bishops on the Family, meeting this week, will address elder care. “I think that’s one of the deep challenges to families.”
He’d like to see ideas for programs that parishes might implement to help families recognize the signs of dementia, or the best way to assist elderly individuals who live alone and may be in denial about their slipping health. “You can see when they come to Mass they’re beginning to need help. And these are really independent people. How do you help them?”
Building relationships — with God and one another — is essential, Msgr. Shafer believes. That observation reflects the message of this year’s Respect Life Month campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which continues through October. “Each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation” is the theme, with an emphasis on respect for human dignity through community and solidarity.
Jan Davis of Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire knows that her dad, the late Delmar Diedrick, was a masterpiece. When their father needed to move into a retirement community, she and her two older siblings, Gary and Marcia, helped their dad make the transition. After their mother, Eleanore died in 2004, their father moved in temporarily with Gary and his wife Linda. But someone had to be at the house at all times for Diedrick’s safety.
His doctor was a big help in broaching the subject of moving into assisted living when all three siblings were present, Davis said. Her dad agreed he needed more help than his children could provide.
“We knew it was a decision that was necessary for us and especially for him,” Davis continued. “It’s important to include the older adult when making the decision of where their new home will be, like we did with Dad by taking him for a tour of Grand Haven (in Eldridge) and allowing him to choose his room. He felt he was part of the decision and wasn’t being forced into it by the family.” She noted that “God has a hand in everything we do … we didn’t pray to God to make that decision, but I know that God was there behind us because all three of us are devout Catholics.”
For individuals who “realize they’re not doing as well as they used to and agree to the transition, it’s much easier,” observed Sister Lois Baniewicz, a member of the Congregation of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. “But if they feel they’re doing better than they are, they have a harder time adjusting. They think they should still be at home.
“We try to be supportive of the family and let them know how (their loved one) is doing,” explained Sr. Baniewicz, administrator of The Villas at Saint Therese Assisted Living, Columbus, Ohio.
“Once they enjoy the meals and meet other people, see that there are things for them to do and they’re not sitting home alone, they can adjust really well and enjoy life again,” added Sr. Baniewicz, who previously served as assistant administrator at the Kahl Home in Davenport.
Making the transition involves letting go – on the part of families and individuals entering assisted living or a nursing home. Sr. Baniewicz encourages families to decorate their love one’s room with familiar photos and other pictures to create a sense of home. “That’s what we tried to do with the new Kahl Home, make it more like a home, so it’s not so institutional.”
Having the opportunity to attend daily Mass consoles people whose faith has been an important part of their life, she noted. Delmar Diedrick was a strong Catholic, Davis said. When Grand Haven could no longer provide the care he needed, he moved to the Kahl Home. “Dad enjoyed going to Mass every day.”
Her dad had a terrific personality, she added, which made the transition a lot smoother. That’s not the case for everyone entering a nursing home.
Among her duties as coordinator of Sisters Services for the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, Davenport, Sister Mary Bea Snyder assesses whether a Sister might need to enter the nursing home.
She believes her sacred duty is to listen to each Sister as they process that transition. Sr. Snyder also participates in a roundtable group with Sisters from the Upper Mississippi Valley (SUN) to discuss issues related to elder nuns’ needs.
“It gives me greater awareness when Sisters come to talk to me about problems or concerns,” Sr. Snyder said. They may be dealing with the loss of their hearing, eyesight, mobility or memory. “I see it as a gift … being able to listen, to hear, to not judge.”
The elderly have gifts to give as well. “Our elder years are when we grow the most in our spirituality. We have time to focus on growing in our relationship with God,” noted Sr. Snyder, who will give a presentation in November on the “Autumn Time of Life” at Our Lady of the Prairie in Wheatland.
Sr. Baniewicz has ministered in nursing homes for all but 14 of her 53 years with her religious community. She cherishes interacting with residents and touching their lives. “They give a lot back, by telling their stories and sharing their wisdom.”