Every Friday, Maryann takes the train out to Long Island to visit her father, who is 83 and living in a nursing home. She spends the day and sometimes stays the weekend if he’s under the weather.
It’s a mission of mercy that she takes very seriously.
He always has a favorite topic of conversation. The same one each week. He wants to talk about his wife of 61 years who died three years ago. He recalls the good times they had, but his sorrow and grief still linger for the love he met in high school and later married and had five children with.
It breaks his daughter’s heart, but she listens attentively and compassionately as he reviews the same bittersweet memories and wonders why she had to die before him. He can’t “move on,” and the psychologist says he never will.
“He’s a wonderful man, who has never gotten over the fact that my mother is dead,” Maryann said. “He spends his days re-reading letters she wrote to him while he was working on oil tankers and she was in college. He just wants to talk about her and keep her memory alive.”
So Maryann commiserates and shows him the love of a faithful daughter before taking the train home again. We all should be so blessed to have loyal and devoted children in our old age, especially in a world where the elderly are often considered irrelevant and burdensome, if not expendable.
The story of Maryann’s devotion to her father reminded me of the Feast of the Holy Family, when we read from the Book of Sirach at Mass. The author, Ben Sira, understood the importance of caring for the elderly. He was a Jewish sage from Jerusalem whose moral teachings are still timely 2,200 years later. It is a reading I often quote to my four daughters.
“God sets a father in honor over his children,” he wrote. “Whoever honors his father atones for sins and preserves himself from them. Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and when he prays, he is heard. Whoever reveres his father will live a long life; he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.
“My son [or daughter, I would add], take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten.”
That’s a message for all ages, but it’s especially relevant in the 21st century, when Alzheimer’s is expected to become a global epidemic and a growing number of countries and states are pushing to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in the name of compassion and death with dignity.
Pope Francis has said, “The biblical commandment that requires us to honor our parents reminds us of the honor we must show to all elderly people. The Bible reserves a severe warning for those who neglect or mistreat their parents. The same judgment applies today when parents, having become older and less useful, are marginalized to the point of abandonment.”
There are almost 6 million Americans over 85, and we will face a crisis in aging and care-giving in coming decades. Care of the elderly will be a monumental concern as the 76 million baby boomers enter their senior years. We live in an era of increased longevity when the average life span is approaching 80. As a result, an estimated 22 million Americans (roughly 15 percent of the workforce) are part-time caregivers for aging family members.
Baby boomers and Generation Xers seldom identify themselves as caregivers until they’re in the throes of it – and most will be sharing the experience sooner rather than later. With a projected shortage of caregivers, we’ll have to give of our time unselfishly for others, especially the most needy among us.
Everyone has a personal story about caregiving – for a chronically ill parent, a mother with Alzheimer’s, an ill child or a sick spouse. It’s an experience we all share, and it’s a valuable one. In many ways, caregiving teaches us to be like Christ, to show compassion and give selflessly to others, often the dispossessed or the chronically ill or the poor, who need love and can give us nothing in return.
“The human person is always precious, even if marked by age and sickness,” Pope Francis said. “The human person, in fact, in whatever circumstance, is good in and of himself and for others, and is loved by God. For this reason, when life becomes very fragile and the end of earthly existence approaches, we feel the responsibility to assist and accompany the person in the best way.”
That’s a fundamental truth Ben Sira recognized a long time ago, but one that many people have forgotten.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.