The Church journeys with the aged as they move into their later years.
In July, the Pew Research Center reported that Americans age 60 and older are alone for more than half of their waking hours — about seven hours a day. For those who live alone, it’s 10 hours a day. People age 60 and older account for 22% of the U.S. population — 73 million people — so that is a lot of people spending a lot of time alone.
Caring for the needs of the elderly is both a responsibility and a grace. “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2276, instructs.
Dr. Lisa Honkanen, a geriatrician in East Northport, New York, whose medical practice is dedicated to caring for the homebound elderly, told the Register that many of her patients suffer from loneliness. “It’s a tragedy of our times,” she said.
A couple of her patients had no family at all. “So I realized that I needed to be family for them,” Honkanen said. When she attended a funeral for one of her elderly patients, she told the Register, only three other people showed up. She said that loneliness can especially be a problem for people who never married or had no children, or whose children live far away or cannot visit often.
“It’s nice that technology helps us stay connected, but there is nothing that beats a hug,” Honkanen said. Many graces come from spending time with the elderly, according to the doctor, who urges others — and especially young people — to share their time with the aged lonely. “And it’s a valuable life lesson for your own children, from one generation to the next, that then perpetuates.”
Honkanen encourages seniors to accept help when it is offered. “That’s what love does — cares for others.” She noted that even non-relative caregivers have the opportunity for that gift of serving with love.
And when patients tell Honkanen they feel useless, she reminds them: “God has you on Earth for a reason.” She reassures them that we are never really alone. “By praying and even offering up their loneliness,” she said, “they are part of a much bigger community beyond their walls or community, which includes purgatory and heaven.”
Colleen Matthewson of Dearborn, Michigan, needed to find assisted living for her 93-year-old father last year. “The Catholic facility nearby did not have an opening, so I found another one that at least carried EWTN,” she said. “It’s his lifeline. Since Dad can no longer attend daily Mass in person, he still has EWTN to watch the Mass, and he has his regular routine pretty much of the daily Rosary, Divine Mercy prayers, reading the Bible and his missal.”
Matthewson visits daily and takes her father to Mass on weekends. Her five siblings live out of state and although they visit often, Matthewson is her father’s main caretaker. She said her father is happy and participates in activities. “Dad gave me a good life, and I am blessed to be able to see him live the end of his journey in life to the fullest,” she said.
Mike Connelly, a traveling certified nursing assistant from Bismarck, North Dakota, covers shifts at nursing homes and critical care units. He said families should be aware of the support the elderly need.
He pointed out that this time of aging can be an opportunity to grow in faith. “Showing them love and care often opens up … conversations” regarding faith, he said.
The U.S. bishops’ pastoral message “Blessings of Age” emphasizes the need to see the aged as a gift. “Aging demands the attention of the entire Church,” the bishops wrote. “How the faith community relates to its older members — recognizing their presence, encouraging their contributions, responding to their needs, and providing appropriate opportunities for spiritual growth — is a sign of the community’s spiritual health and maturity.”
The Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, is doing just that through its Ministry for Seniors. Deanna Sass, director of pastoral care for the diocese, spoke with the Register in the midst of preparing for the annual summer Senior Spirituality Day. “This day is a thank-you for all the ways they have made our diocese what it is,” she said. “They have built our churches, and they still volunteer in force.”
The event draws around 500 people for the day, with speakers, lunch, music and Mass. Janice Willett, who is an author and a senior, has participated in Senior Day for the last three years. “We seniors are welcomed with open arms, love and respect,” she said. “We are made to feel special and recognized for our contributions to family, community and society.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.