My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Spiritual Benefits to Growing Old

I work as a caregiver for two elderly women. Both, in some way, have to live with humiliations imposed on them by their age. One of them (hereafter Mrs. B) had a stroke that left her unable to speak and paralyzed on one side; the other (hereafter Mrs. T) wets her bed like a child. This morning I was emptying the trash for Mrs. T, and told the Good Lord: “Okay, Lord, I’m trying to do this for love of You…forgive me for wanting to hold my nose.”

I realized I was beginning to fear old age from working with these two women. I don’t want to be unable to communicate, unable to care for my most basic needs; I fear the humiliation.
However, I have realized that there are some spiritual benefits to growing old. If you accept the coming of old age in the right spirit–accepting it as God’s Will, as part of the cross He wants you to bear in union with His Cross–then the humiliations that may come as part of old age can actually be good for your soul. So here a few of the virtues that the elderly might have to practice, and thus some of the spiritual benefits you could obtain:

  • Patience. It takes a lot of patience, especially for the elderly lady who is unable to communicate. She has to be patient with me, with her husband, and with her other caregivers as we try to figure out what it is she’s asking us, or telling us; what it is she wants to do or wants us to do with her. She also has to be patient with herself. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to be, for all intents and purposes, locked up within in your mind, struggling to say what you want to say, knowing what you want to say but being unable to get the words out correctly. 
  • Humility. The main thing that I’ve noticed in the lives of the people for whom I work is the humiliations they must endure. The humiliation of being unable to cut their own food, unable to take care of the most basic and personal of needs, unable to communicate their needs. And yet, if they endure this patiently and without getting too frustrated with themselves or their caregivers, it will turn out for their good. They will grow in humility, in the realization that they can’t do this for themselves and that they need help. And that’s really hard when they’ve been fiercely independent for more than 70 years.
  • Charity. This virtue isn’t so much one that the elderly person has to practice, as one that I have to practice in relation to her. Yet, at the same time, there are times that an elderly person must be charitable. When she’s had a bad day and her youthful, very inexperienced caregiver is trying to understand what it is Mrs. B wants her to do and failing epically as she goes through what has become a “guessing game,” Mrs. B has an opportunity to practice charity by not getting frustrated with her caregiver. Also, the simple act of remembering to say “thank you” and forcing that out, though her speech has been damaged from her stroke, is another way she can practice charity.
Now, I really have no room to say what virtues the elderly should be practicing. I don’t know what acts of humility, patience, and charity go on within the brains of these elderly women as I fumble around. I’m only 23 and, God-willing, it will be many years before I am in such a position of dependency and helplessness. But what I can take away as lessons for myself from these elderly people, seem to be lessons in the same virtues that I myself might have an opportunity to practice in 50 or 60 years.

  • Patience. I’ve never been the most patient person, and I’m getting a lot of practice. They say, don’t ask the Good Lord for a virtue, because He will give you the opportunity to practice it! Well, I’m getting many opportunities to practice patience. I have to be patient when I don’t understand what it is Mrs. B is gesturing to, when I have to ask her question after question after question until I finally figure out what it is she wants me to do. I have to be patient with myself, too, and not get frustrated at my inability to think of all the possible scenarios she might want.
  • Charity. I’m a very selfish person, yet these caregiving jobs require me to be less selfish (I won’t go so far as to say “unselfish,” because I’m definitely not at that point yet!). I have to practice what one of my professors at Christendom College called “Mother-Theresa-like acts of service”: making beds, cooking dinner, cutting up food for a 70-odd-year-old woman, washing dishes (even though I hate washing dishes). And I have to remind myself frequently that, although these are jobs and it is very good that I am getting paid to do these things, that should not be the primary reason for which I’m doing them.
  • Humility. These jobs are, in a way, opportunities for humility. Because I’m practicing charity, going out of myself to help others, these jobs help me to think less of myself, to realize that I’m not the Queen of the Universe, that I’m not perfect, I’m not a saint. These jobs are helping me realize just what an impatient, selfish, prideful person I am. And, please God, I’ll have learned some lessons by the time I leave these jobs.