By Susanne Janssen
After accompanying your father until his death, what changed in your perception of old age?
When people get advanced in years, they tend to become more cautious. They prefer to just turn on the cruise control and maintain the status quo. But my dad had a completely different approach as explained by the title of the book, Keep at it, Riley! It was my father’s motto from early on in life and his way of saying, “don’t give up; give it to God.”
I saw him model it all through his life, but particularly in his last months. A powerful example was at 82 years of age when he agreed to move from Pennsylvania to California after he had lost my mom, his bride of sixty years and caregiver, in a tragic car accident. I begged him to come to live with me and my family, even though he couldn’t walk and was seriously ill. His doctor said it was against medical advice since he probably wouldn’t survive the trip, but he agreed to take the chance. And he made it!
Interestingly, my great-grandmother lived to be 92, and wondered why she was still on Earth when God had already called all her contemporaries home. She often pondered, “I think God has forgotten about me.” But my mother counseled, “If God hasn’t called you home yet, then he has more work for you to do here.” I think my dad’s work was to live with us and minister to us in his last months.
What was the biggest challenge on this journey of accompanying your father?
I have always been very squeamish around medical procedures. I had come close to fainting several times just watching someone get stitches. And because I never received any medical training, I questioned whether I should take on the care of my father. But by the grace of God, I was able to remain strong and clear-headed when I needed to be.
One of those times was when my dad had been with us for only one week. It was Christmas Day, and we were blessed with a wonderful family celebration including our traditional holiday meal. Unfortunately, my father was diabetic, so I had learned to prick his finger for a blood sample, then calculate and administer the dosage of insulin.
But that night, his glucose level was off the charts. Instead of being around 100 as usual, it had skyrocketed to 400. Out of earshot of my dad, I called the doctor. First, he asked if he was in any distress. I confirmed that he was not, just very content after a day spent surrounded by family. The doctor directed me to give him the determined dose and to recheck in an hour. If it went down to 300, then he would be OK. If not, he would need to go to the emergency room. I decided not to tell dad what was going on, just pray for this to resolve. So, for the next hour I sat with my dad quietly watching TV. And thanks be to God, the level went down.
And what was the biggest gift you received on this journey?
My father loved people. Whenever anyone came to the house, no matter who they were, my father took great delight at the opportunity to get to know them. He never saw anyone as “the nurse” or “the delivery person;” he saw them as a unique and irreplaceable child of God. He treated everyone with dignity. People came to the house to assist my father, but he was the one that brightened their day.
In your opinion, what needs to change in our society so that the elderly can be valued for what they are and also what needs to change in order to accompany them in the best way possible?
As a society, we need to refocus on our baptismal call as Christians. We can easily agree that we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless and visit the sick. But we need to recognize that our elderly are a part of the population in need of that care.
I open my story in Keep at it, Riley! relaying a phone conversation with my elderly dad. I began, “Hey, Dad, I’m going to Africa. I’ve been invited to go on a missionary trip.” My father, surprised, asked, “What are you going to do in Africa?” I responded, “Well, whatever they need… maybe English lessons, or prison ministry, or...” He asked, “How long would you go for?” I replied, “About two to three weeks.” After a pause he said, “Can we be your Africa?”
My world stopped for a second and would never be the same again. How did I miss that? I was going to go care for someone on the other side of the world when my own parents needed me. I’m so grateful my father asked the question that refocused my priorities.
A lot of people fear this final stage of life of loved ones because you don’t know what to expect. What advice would you give to people who have to face the fact that their loved ones are approaching their final stages of life?
The Irish use the term anam cara, to name someone that accompanies a loved one from this life to the next. The direct translation means “soul mate”, not like a married couple, but similar to a midwife accompanying a birth. It’s a blessing to be an anam cara, to be with someone that is passing through the thin veil between heaven and earth. You have the opportunity to love and comfort them, to pray with them, and to be available for important conversations.
There may come a point to re-evaluate their care plan. We can easily fall into the pattern of wanting to use every possible medical treatment up to the very end, for what is known as “medicalized dying.” But one may get to a point where the burden of the medical treatment is disproportionate to the expected outcome. It is within our Christian teaching that we can request to withhold that treatment, as long as death is not the intended outcome by action or omission.
Assisted suicide has been wrongfully renamed “dying with dignity” The anam cara needs to be the advocate for their loved one to ensure that they truly die with dignity, that they wait for God to take them home among family and friends in prayer.
How did your faith help you to accompany your father? And did your faith change during this period?
Concerned that I didn’t have the necessary skills to care for my father, I had to give it all to God and pray fervently. I went to Mass at my parish to encounter the real presence of Christ in the Word, in the assembly, in the priest, and in the Eucharist. And when I brought Holy Communion to my father, it was like being one of the friends of the paralytic that lowered him down through the roof to Jesus (cf. Lk 5:18-20). I felt like I was participating in the work of Jesus to minister to my dad. My faith was strengthened, not weakened.
What would be your personal wish when you approach old age?
I hope that I can witness my faith to my family at the end of my life. I would like to receive the Anointing of the Sick surrounded by my family and witness my faith in the resurrection, that death is not the end. Will I be a burden? I don’t know; I have to trust in God. The subtitle of the book says that I accompanied my father from death into life. But in a profound way, he accompanied me through death into life.
Noreen Madden McInnes is the Director of Liturgy and Spirituality for the Diocese of San Diego.
Her book Keep at it, Riley! is available at newcitypress.com