A social worker’s response to the euthanasia question

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — Last week, I had my first experience doing interviews within the walls of the Vatican. While attending the Pontifical Academy for Life’s conference on care for the elderly, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield, Quebec, along with a few passionate professors and doctors from around the world.

Bishop Simard spoke eloquently on how the last moments of a person’s life can be moments of “serenity,” and “a chance for the person to accept and reconcile” with family members and with God. He also referred to aging as treasures of wisdom, much like Pope Francis has done in the recent past.

I then thought of another person who could provide valid information on caring for the elderly – perhaps the best source I had – my own mother, Dawn. She has worked as a social worker for the elderly in the greater Philadelphia area for over a decade. As an employee at an independent living community in Huntingdon Valley, PA, she knows the struggles senior citizens go through on a daily basis all too well. Dawn got her start, however, when she applied for a job at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), after taking care of her dying father during the last few years of his life.

Having just moved to the area, my mom knew very little about the city she now had to navigate in order to reach her elderly clients who were scattered throughout various neighborhoods, some more dangerous than others. Other than nurturing my grandfather, she had virtually no experience with elder care. Yet, after a long period of prayer, she genuinely felt a strong vocation for this line of work — strong enough to convince the corporation that she was fit for the position.

“It’s not that I felt I was so good at it [social work],” she says, “but being exposed to all the difficulties that older and sometimes ill seniors face made me realize this was a part of our population that needs help and attention.”

She recalled an instance that directly led her to this career path. “I remember being with my dad at the doctor’s office and the office manager spoke so rudely to an elderly patient about her medical insurance that I became upset. I felt blessed that I was able to handle all of these difficult tasks for my dad but realized that this was not the case for every older adult having to manage our current medical maze.”

My mother continued by saying that older adults who have given so much of themselves throughout their lives are somehow being forgotten, abandoned and left out. She, like the bishop, calls the aging “treasures of wisdom”, and spoke highly of the final stage of her father’s life.

“The last years of his life proved to be a blessing in disguise. These were the times he shared stories of his life that I never knew.  My father had been in my life many years before his illness but the last three are the ones I remember the most. I too shared my own stories with him, as his adult daughter, so he truly got to know me – who I grew up to be.”

Dawn helps her seniors with issues of nutrition, meals, transportation, medical insurance, government benefits, and many other modern day challenges. She’s seen many of her residents die, but they do so on a “divine timing that just seems right,” whether they go peacefully in the night or endure a great deal of suffering beforehand. In opposition to the use of euthanasia, she says, “Just like we don’t determine when we enter this world, we should not determine when we leave.”

In our current age, handing the elderly over to caregivers is a common practice, and some might devalue those who can’t work or operate a smart phone. While my mother certainly loves her residents, helping them find value in their own lives is perhaps the hardest part of her job.

She says, “They always leave my office reminding me, ‘Don’t get old, Dawn’ and I always answer back, ‘It’s better than the alternative [dying], right?’ They just laugh.”

Elliot Williams is a Communication major at Villanova University. He is originally from Abington, PA, and is studying abroad at Roma Tre University, while interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau. Elliot is an avid Nutella fanatic.


Farm at St. Joe’s builds community by promoting fresh air, exercise, good health

Produce is shown in the farmer's market at St. Joseph Mercy Health System. The produce is grown on a 364-acre farm on the hospital's Ann Arbor, Mich., campus. (Courtesy Catholic Health Association)

Produce is shown in the farmer’s market at St. Joseph Mercy Health System. The produce is grown on a 364-acre farm on the hospital’s Ann Arbor, Mich., campus. (Courtesy Catholic Health Association)

Not many hospitals have a farm.

But St. Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich., does.

The hospital’s 364-acre on-campus farm gives patients, veterans, students and a few other folks the chance to grow organic vegetables, learn about nutrition and get some fresh air.

The Catholic Health Association honored the hospital June 3 for its innovative approach to healing and wellness with its 2013 Achievement Citation, presented during CHA’s annual assembly in Anaheim, Calif. The award honors innovation and creativity. CHA said the farm fits the hospital’s core values and mission “to heal body, mind and spirit, to improve the health of our communities and to steward the resources entrusted to us.”

CHA’s Catholic Health World magazine has chronicled the work and ministry of the farm. The vegetables and greens produced by the farm find their way to patient meals and the hospital’s Market Café, formerly the cafeteria. Fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers are offered for sale at a farmers’ market inside the hospital.

Anyone can work on the farm, even those confined to bed. Some vegetables are planted in elevated beds for those who cannot squat or bend to reach the ground.

Betsy Taylor’s article says the farm operates year-round with a manager and two additional paid employees and a crew of volunteers. Vegetables are grown during all four seasons thanks to three hoop houses that capture the sun’s energy to keep the plants inside from freezing.

Much of the rest of the hospital campus has been transformed as well. Alfalfa and natural meadows surround the facilities, eliminating financial and ecological costs of a carefully landscaped and maintained lawn.

The award may just inspire other facilities, hospitals, colleges and universities and office parks to consider moving into this ecologically friendly direction.

Cardinal George on the HHS mandate

ROME — Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, currently in Rome for a series of meetings with Vatican officials, spoke yesterday with CNS about the church’s ongoing dispute with the Obama administration over the HHS contraception mandate.

The immediate past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had some insightful observations about what is at stake, and how the dispute could play out in the courts and the political arena.

US religion writers pick bishops’ battle with HHS as 2012 top news story

Members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the world’s oldest and largest professional non-denominational association for journalists who write about religion, picked the U.S. Catholic bishops’ opposition to national health care legislation mandating contraception coverage as the No. 1 religion story of 2012. They also chose Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as the year’s top newsmaker in their annual poll

“As the nation reeled from the Dec. 14 killing of 20 first graders and six adults in Newtown, Conn., religious leaders sought to console a stunned public and to discern religion’s role in future debates about mental health and gun control. The No. 1 U.S. religion story in December 2012 was, without a doubt, the school attack and the mournful search for meaning that follows,” an RNA statement said this week. “However, before the shooting, professional journalists who cover religion voted on the year’s other significant religious events.”

The Top 10 poll of Religion Newswriters Association members took place Dec. 11- 15, 2012, in a confidential, online ballot. More than 100 members of the organization responded. RNA has conducted the poll for nearly 40 years.

Most RNA members are working journalists in secular media, though some work in media owned by specific denominations. (Full disclosure: I am a member of RNA.)

Cardinal Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, became the point man for Catholic objections to required coverage of contraception, sterilization and morning after drugs in Affordable Health Care Act.

The Top 10 Religion Stories of the Year are below:

1. U.S. Catholic bishops lead opposition to Affordable Health Care Act requirement that insurance coverage for contraception be provided for employees. The government backs down a bit, but not enough to satisfy the opposition.

2. A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey shows that “nones,” that is people with no religious affiliation, is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, rising to 19.6 percent of the population.

3. The circulation of an anti-Islam film trailer, “Innocence of Muslims,” causes unrest in several countries, leading to claims that it inspired the fatal attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya. President Obama, at the U.N., calls for toleration tolerance of blasphemy, and respect as a two-way street.

4. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters, who support him more strongly than they did John McCain in the U.S. presidential race.

5. Msgr. William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes the first senior Catholic official in the U.S. to be found guilty of covering up priestly child abuse; later Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., becomes the first bishop to be found guilty of it.

6. The Vatican criticizes the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of U.S. sisters, alleging they haven’t supported church teaching on abortion, sexuality or women’s ordination.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was selected as newsmaker of the year for 2012 by the Religion Newswriters Association. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was selected as newsmaker of the year for 2012 by the Religion Newswriters Association. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

7. Voters OK same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington, bringing the total approving to nine states and the District of Columbia. Also, Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage after North Carolina approves one.

8. The Episcopal Church overwhelmingly adopts a trial ritual for blessing same-sex couples. Earlier, the United Methodists fail to vote on approving gay clergy, and the Presbyterians (USA) vote to study, rather than sanction, same-sex marriage ceremonies.

9. Six people are killed and three wounded at worship in a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee. The shooter, an Army veteran killed by police, is described as a neo-Nazi.

10. The Southern Baptist Convention elects without opposition its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

Votes for the 2012 Religion Newsmaker of the Year ranked the five potential candidates in this order:

1. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York becomes a point man for Catholic objections to required coverage of contraception, sterilization and morning-after drugs in the Affordable Health Care Act. But the cardinal also takes heat from the right when he invites the president to the traditional Al Smith Dinner in New York.

2. Rev. Fred Luter, first black president of the sprawling Southern Baptist Convention, who is expected to help the SBC become more racially diverse.

3. Mark Basseley Youssef, an Egypt-born Christian whose work has been condemned by the Coptic Church, provoked rioting in the Muslim world with his film trailer “Innocence of Muslims.” He was jailed in California on probation violations.

4. Mormon voters, who enthusiastically backed one of their own for president, acted in ways that helped overcome suspicions of them by other faiths.

5. Pro football quarterback Tim Tebow, whose book about his faith was on the best-seller list, inspired the term “Tebowing” for kneeling in prayer and led to polarized discussions about the role of faith in sports.

Religion has big impact on how America gives

If you ever wondered whether religion makes a big impact on American generosity, wonder no more. It does.

Sister Mary Maloney, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, chats with a guest in the cafeteria of a nonprofit charitable organization administered by her order in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2010. The charity serves hot meals to the poor, needy and homeless and provides transitional housing for young mothers. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

According to a new study released in the Aug. 23 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “regions of the country that are deeply religious are more generous than those that are not,” reports Ben Gose in an exclusive study, “How America Gives.”

“Two of the top nine states — Utah and Idaho — have high numbers of Mormon residents, who have a tradition of tithing at least 10 percent of their income to the church. The remaining states in the top nine are all in the Bible Belt.”

The top 10 states in terms of giving were, in order, Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Idaho, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and  Maryland.

Of America’s 50 largest cities, Salt Lake City took the No. 1 spot with citizens there giving an average of 9 percent of their household income to charity. Rounding out the top 10 are Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Oklahoma City; Washington; Dallas-Fort Worth; and Jacksonville, Fla.

Of U.S. regions, the South gives a greater percentage of its household income to charity, 5.2 percent on average. The West follows with 4.5 percent. Midwesterners give on an average of 4.3 percent, and Northeasterners give the least, 4 percent of average income. But when faith comes out of the equation, the trends flip. “People in the Northeast provide 1.4 percent of their discretionary income to secular charities, compared to those in the South, who give 0.9 percent,” the report said.

Gose also reported some other surprising findings of the study:

The rich aren’t the most generous. “People who make $50,000 to $75,000 give an average of 7.6 percent of the their discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for people who make $100,000 or more.”

It matters were you live. “Rich people who live in neighborhoods with many other wealthy people give a smaller share of their income to charity than wealthy people who live economically diverse neighborhoods.”

Tax incentives make a difference. “State policies that promote giving can make a significant difference and in some cases are influencing the rankings. In Arizona, charities are reaping more than $100-million annually from a series of tax credits adopted in recent years.

To see how your state ranks,and even your city of county, the report has a great interactive map. It also profiles giving and its challenges and victories in four cities: Phoenix, ranked No. 22; Minneapolis-St. Paul, ranked No. 30; Providence, R.I., ranked at the bottom at No. 50; and Washington, No. 8.

You can also find how the data was gathered and analyzed.

Cholera response steps up as Haiti’s rainy season begins

(CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

An upswing in cholera in Haiti has prompted health care workers and aid agencies to step up efforts to prevent the water-borne disease from spreading rapidly as the rainy season begins.

Catholic Relief Services was among the aid agencies that boosted the distribution of soap, water purification tablets and hygiene information within 24 hours of the initial spike in early April following a period of heavy rain. CRS reported reaching 22,000 families within days; in Port-au-Prince, agency workers installed or repaired sanitation stations and increased disinfection and maintenance of facilities in 12 settlements where people left homeless by the January 2010 earthquake remain in crude shelters.

In addition, Boston-based Partners in Health has embarked on a vaccination program with the goal of reaching 100,000 people. While the vaccine typically is effective 70 percent of the time, PIH has set out to show that a concentrated vaccination campaign can significantly reduce the threat of the disease as long as vaccine supplies are available, Donna Barry, the agency’s director of policy and advocacy, told a congressional briefing April 18.

Despite such outreach, several speakers said during the briefing that all Haitians are at risk of contracting the disease, which can kill in a matter of hours if left untreated.

Now some history. The first cholera cases surfaced in central Haiti in Artibonite department in October 2010. Until then, the disease had no history in the country. Investigators traced the source to a faulty sanitation system at a camp housing Nepalese soldiers, who are part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The U.N. has declined to acknowledge it was responsible for the outbreak, sparking protest from some Haitian organizations. More than 7,050 people have died and more than 532,000 people — 5 percent of the population — have contracted the disease, according to the Haitian Ministry of Health and Population.

As the rainy season begins, those most at risk are the 500,000 people who remain in the settlements across the earthquake zone, said Luiz Augusto Galvao, manager of sustainable development and environmental health area for the Pan-American Health Organization.

He decried the lack of access to safe water and sanitation for many Haitians. Only 69 percent of Haitians can access safe drinking water and just 17 percent have access to sanitation systems.

An international coalition is attempting to address the situation, but he acknowledged it will be years before things improve.

So what to do?

Agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Inter-American Development Bank, UNICEF, U.N.-Water and the governments of Brazil, Canada and France are pulling together to address the water problems facing Haiti, Galvao said. Other speakers called upon the world to make good on the billions of dollars pledged in the months after the earthquake to spur an effort to bring clean water and sanitation to all Haitians.

“For now we need to save lives,” Galvao said.

Seeing the bigger picture on health care

(CNS photo/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

With climate change characterized as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” Catholic health providers are working to do their part to reduce their carbon footprint. Climate change “is already negatively impacting human health” and its effects “will multiply dramatically if no action is taken,” says a new resource from the Catholic Health Association, titled “Climate Change and Health Care: Is There a Role for the Health Care Sector?” The 24-page document notes that “populations who are at greatest risk and considered most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change” — including the unborn, children, older adults and those in poverty — “lack the ability to cope with the consequences of climate change.”

Among the negative health impacts caused by climate change now and in the future are heat-related illnesses, poor birth outcomes, malnutrition and food insecurity, degraded water quality and availability, respiratory illnesses and premature death, the document says. The resource is part of CHA’s work with the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, made up of 12 national Catholic organizations.