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.