"[T]ake comfort: as it was with Jesus, so it is with us today. Trust and trustworthiness surround our lives. That which in the beginning granted us an infant peace is here yet again --- when we have been returned to helplessness. . . . If all my life, like Jesus's, is protected by the left hand and the right hand of God, why wouldn't I be able to speak peacefully of this terminal disease?"
(Walter Wangerin, in Letters from the Land of Cancer)
I visited my mother in a nursing home last Friday. When I arrived, the physical therapist was taking her to a group activity. She and various other residents, all by all appearances over 85, were making smoothies --- you know, fruit drinks. I listened in.
"Ms. Wilson, do you want to make a smoothie?"
"I can't swim."
"Ms. Wilson, we're not swimming, we're making a drink, a smoothie."
"I never touch the stuff." She looked put out, shocked that someone would offer her a mixed drink.
What I enjoyed about the whole process was the way the women assisting the elderly folks asked them to do whatever they could do, assisting them where necessary but not trying to simply do it for them while they watched. I had more than one laugh, not at their expense but in much the same way as we laugh at young children.
"What kind of fruit you want, Ms. Wilson? You like strawberries?"
"Strawberries. You like strawberries?"
"How about blueberries?"
"Nope." She pursed her lips.
The aide handed her a spoon and required her to pick up the strawberries, one by one, an excruciatingly slow process, as she dropped them about half the time or missed the cup. And yet the aide was unfailingly patient.
"Now, you want milk or orange juice?"
"OK then, let's go over to the refrigerator and get the orange juice." She helped Ms. Wilson stand up and, with her walker, slowly shuffle over to the refrigerator about ten feet away, open the door, and, with assistance, pick up the orange juice container.
"That don't look like orange juice."
"You're right." It was a squarish container unlike any I had seen.
They helped her shuffle back to her chair. Sitting down heavily, she exhaled loudly and closed her eyes.
"Let's let her rest. Too much excitement."
Another elderly woman, who I was not introduced to, was sitting behind one of the aides. She had a mischievous smile on her face. Leaning forward she slapped one of the younger girls on the behind as she bent over the table.
"Too much hanging out there, Ms. Jones?
"Yeah, you needed that."
"I better keep my eye on you."
The aide roused Ms. Wilson and, with some difficulty, had her stand.
"We're gonna put our fruit in the blender now, Ms. Wilson. Let's walk over there. Come on." After untangling her feet, Ms. Wilson moved toward the counter. "Now, take that cup of fruit and dump it in the blender."
"That thing right there. We're gonna mix it all up." Ms. Wilson dumped it in the blender. "Now, push that button." She guided her hand to the right button and Ms. Wilson pushed. Nothing. "Push it hard, now." Ms. Wilson pushed again.
When the blender kicked in, it made a loud whirring noise. It startled Ms. Jones. She literally jumped out of her seat about three or four inches at the sound. I don't think I've ever seen anyone actually elevate like that, like a startled cat. Everyone laughed.
On the whole, being with these residents of the nursing home was much like being in a preschool class. They enjoy the activities, some more than others. They are asked to do whatever they can do but, just like toddlers, need assitance, get distracted, and tire easily. They work and play alongside each other but mostly exist in their own world, not interacting much with each other. They cannot live independently any longer and suffer the indignity of minds and bodies that won't function as they once did.
Yet what I sense in this home at least is that my mother and the other residents are treated as human beings, are valued and accorded dignity. Though they do so, not many may still know why it is right to do so, but in essence we value the aged because of the Jewish and Christian belief, still to some extent embedded in our culture, that they are made in God's image and thus are to be valued in spite of their lack of utility. Except for their need for health care, they are not important to our economy. They do not consume much, so they are outside the market economy. They cannot work, given failing bodies and minds. There may come a time here when their caregivers and family have to fight for their right to treatment, when the attitude of doctors may be to just "let them die peacefully." (That time has come in Europe.) But not yet, and hopefully never.
Whenever I have seen my mother, she is dressed well, has makeup on, and is involved in something or has someone nearby attentive to her. She is valued. How we treat the aged is a measure of the character of our society. If they become expendable because they cannot produce or consume, because they embarrass us or inconvenience us, then we will all lose our dignity.
As they are valued, I want to remind them --- remind my mother --- that the same Jesus who gave her peace as an infant (which, in a way, she is again), will give her peace now, when she has been returned to helplessness. Away from their childhood and adult homes, in a place not of their choosing, a "rest" home, may they rest in Jesus. And may we not forget. After all, they are who we will be.