Kill the pain, not the patient (

There will be Agony in Serving the Aged

We were a group of three to four Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, taking the Eucharist to Catholic residents in two or three nursing homes during any given week. Neither rain, nor hail, nor sleet, nor dark of blizzard winds kept us from our appointed rounds. The only thing that stopped us was the semi-annual bouts of influenza that would shut down whole wards.

  Most of our Catholic clients were aged well into their 8th or 9th decades. Most of them requested to be served communion and visits from a priest or Catholic laity members. Most of them expected a weekly visit from us. Most of them could recite the ‘Our Father’ from memory. Most of them were physically able to gnaw, then to swallow the Precious Body of Christ. Some of them were not able.

            Wednesday mornings we attended Mass and collected enough Hosts to serve approximately twenty-one to thirty people. Some times but not often enough, we had to break the hosts in half to accommodate occasional family visitors. In rare instances, we would have to return one or two excess Hosts.

            On more than one occasion, we made the rounds to discover a patient missing. I would inquire as to that person’s whereabouts only to be told that the patient had died over the weekend. I’d have to cry it out in an empty closet before rejoining my companions waiting in the reception area with a donut and coffee.

            Somehow I never expected anyone to die. No one bothered to cushion the shock of delivery for such news, and tears would come unbidden to my eyes. While the staff seemed inured to an individual’s inevitable passing from this life to the next, I wasn’t. My prayers were for their souls to pass quickly thru Purgatory to more heavenly realms.

            My name is Laura. I was the one who got called when new clients arrived. My fellow ExM’s left it up to me to keep track of all our clients by room and floor. I knew each person by name. It was up to me to cross a name off the list. That list had to be updated for our team members every month, sometimes every week.

            Kevin is a white-haired man of Irish descent who proudly proclaims his Brooklyn NY heritage. The clients call him ‘Father Flynn’, as do members of the staff. Kevin is a fast talker – it took some time for him to learn he must repeat the Our Father sl-o-o-w-ly, but he is a jolly good listener. People open up to him, especially those who spent time and money in pursuit of similar pastimes, the camaraderie of book stores, libraries and Irish taverns in historic Colorado Springs. I learned more about the city from them than is promoted by official city historians. When a male client preferred being served by a male Catholic, Kevin was their first choice.

            Pat is a rather strict, conservative ExM. He has a luxuriant head of white hair, and usually dresses in an old-fashioned shirt and tie, with a dark business suit jacket. When a client refuses to take the Host from either Kevin or me, we send in ‘Monsignor Dowling.’ Works every time. Pat is finally at the point where he doesn’t deny being a priest. He establishes a good rapport with residents who confess every week to having just eaten breakfast. He grants them special dispensation to take the Eucharist anyway. Pat came up with the blessing that we give after communion.

            Chuck, the fourth member of our team, is a snowbird who divides his time between Colorado and Arizona. He is the one who taught me how to take their hands in mine and pray with the clients. A big man, he kneels down beside every client, gently places one hand upon a frail shoulder, and prays the Memorare.

            “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided…” The residents love him.

            With my clients, I learn to smile, to ask how they were doing, and to listen patiently to their replies. If they need something in particular, I would convey that message to a staff member or request a visit from a priest. The biggest joy I got was in hearing them recite with me a mystery and prayers of the Rosary. This could only be done by a few who were willing to wrench their attention away from television sets, intentionally left on by staff members who preferred they stay put.

            One blind woman could recite the all the mysteries by rote. The staff supplied her with a radio and headphones in an effort to keep her in bed. She was allowed to sit in the dining room to eat, but could not move anywhere without being pushed about in a wheel chair. One day, I came upon her when she had slipped out of the wheelchair. That was the last time I saw her out of bed.

            Two women fell sick and were given medication that muddled their brains to the point where they didn’t even recognize me, nor were they able receive the Host. I honestly braced myself against the fact that they were both about to die. Two weeks passed by, and the first one recovered. I was delighted, and recited a thanksgiving prayer with her that she was back to normal and taking communion again. The next week, they told me she had died. The second one did not fully recover her senses, but neither did she die. She no longer took communion.

            We saw people of all ages with injuries come and go after going thru therapy. Some suffered major heart problems, or underwent surgery. Some had experienced strokes. One bright-eyed youngish woman had a stroke that left her with tremors in hand and leg on one side. We prayed for a smooth, and swift recovery for those patients. Whenever one of them relocated to a room on an upper floor, we knew those patients were there to stay, and switched to prayers of peace for them.

            Every one of our clients has a history, and I ask them to share it with us – although Pat is not so much interested in their history. I try to explain the value of getting clients to talk, and he complains that I sound just like his wife. Kevin roars with laughter, but later adds conversational sessions for men at the nursing homes because he takes delight in history. And every man, every one of them has a story.

            Pat arranged with Father Michael to come give mass at the nursing home once a month for clients able to attend. He admits that not only does Kevin take communion to the clients as usual on Wednesday morning, but then the clients file in for mass where they again receive communion from the priest. Another priest told us it was okay for them to receive the host twice in one day.

            The coffee and donuts and stories shared between us after serving the weak and the infirm, warmed our hearts, and provided us with entertaining testimonies on behalf of our ministry. We parted company each week resolved to return the next week to serve them again. For me it was a ministry of joy and sorrow, and a time for making long-lasting friendships in the service of the aged. I highly recommend serving the aged if you can stand up to experiencing great sorrow, and greater joy.


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