Saturday, February 7, 2015

Growing Old and Praying to Die

The recent ruling by Canada's Supreme Court permitting physician-assisted suicide reminds me of several columns I have written that touch on the subject of death and dying. They include this one, written in 2008 during my dad's last year of life when he was praying each day to die.  

It’s not easy growing old. Just ask my dad.

Now 86, he lives in a nursing home. As a younger man, he worked hard to support his 
family, running machines at the factory, loading trucks.

But now he is frightfully thin, frail and weak, and uses a wheelchair to get around. His hearing isn’t very good, he finds it hard to read, and his memory is slipping.

Sometimes he remembers I am coming; other times it’s a surprise. Sometimes he thinks I’m coming when I’m not, and then he is hurt and angry.

Even the small pleasure of eating is denied him. In his nursing home, residents eagerly look forward to mealtimes—they help break up the day.

But even that holds little joy for my dad; since he has trouble swallowing, his food is mostly pureed.

“It tastes bland,” he says. He’s right; in order to achieve the right consistency, the dining hall staff have to add water.

Then there’s the loneliness. Most of his friends are gone, and so is his wife—she died almost four years ago. They were married for 53 years.

Sure, they sometimes argued, and sometimes very loudly. But now he has nobody to talk to at all.

Add it all up, and he wonders: Why keep on living?

In fact, what he most wants in life is to die. Every night he prays that God will take him home. Every morning, when he wakes up, he is disappointed.

“I just want to go peacefully, in my sleep,” he says. 

He can’t understand why God won’t answer that one, simple prayer.

I don’t blame him for feeling that way. It must be hard to depend on others for the simple necessities in life. It must be hard to be constantly surrounded by illness, decline and death.

It must be tough to feel like you are caught in a real-life version of the movie Groundhog Day—each day is like the day before.

No wonder he has so little interest in living.

My dad isn’t the only one who feels this way. Gerhard Friesen, a chaplain at a Winnipeg personal care home, says that he often hears older people say they wish they could die.

“It’s normal for people to feel that way,” he says. “Everything aches, and they’ve suffered so many losses in life—friends, home, possessions, and sometimes a spouse.”

He tells them that God will take them home in His own good time but, as long as they are still here, he will be there to care for them—and tell them that they matter to him, their families and to their church, if they belong to one.

But they don’t always get that message from their churches. Instead of feeling loved and cared for, they often feel that they don’t matter.

This is especially true on Sunday mornings, when some churches send volunteers to offer worship services. Sometimes they feel that churches are doing the minimum possible—sending less than their best. 

“Residents will tell you on Monday morning when the service was bad,” says Friesen. “They say, ‘They think that’s good enough for us.’”

That’s too bad. When it comes to the elderly, caring is non-negotiable—especially for people of faith. The world’s great religions all teach that older people should be respected, honoured and cared for.

But as Canada ages, providing care for seniors will become a challenge. How will places of worship minister to the large numbers of elderly people in their midst?

Will there be enough clergy who are trained in the area of spirituality and aging?

Will we be ready to wrestle with profound issues around the end of life?

Sitting with my dad a week ago, those thoughts went through my mind. As I watched him sleep, I knew he was lucky to be in a great personal care home—the staff are friendly, compassionate, considerate and professional. The level of service is excellent.

But still, his life is hard. He wants God to take him home. “I pray that one night I will just lay down and not get up,” he says.

Some days, I find myself praying that for him, too.

Postscript: Edward Longhurst died on Feb. 4, 2009 after slipping into a coma.

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