Usually, I try to write a piece for the Curatio Newsletter that develops some philosophical argument on a moral issue. But a recent experience has left me reflecting on the difficulties faced daily by caretakers of the sick or elderly, and the vital importance of spiritual and material support.

Two years ago, my younger sister and her husband took into their home our aging parents, now both eighty-nine years old and in declining mental and physical condition. My mother fell down the basement stairs two Christmases back, and thanks to bones reinforced by Reclast, managed to escape with a lot of stitches, bruises, and pulled muscles and ligaments. Of course, at her age, recovery took the better part of a year. Since then, though, it has become apparent that she has been suffering transient ischemic attacks, which are now becoming more frequent. She becomes unfocused and confused when these happen. She is aware of the confusion, but cannot place the problem. Sometimes, she thinks she is in her childhood. Her doctor says it is now just a matter of time before a major stroke takes her. My father has a lot of arthritis gnarling his hands and making his elbows ache. He wears a soft neck brace most of the time, as his neck would otherwise have his head coming straight out from his body. His prostate is impinging on his bladder. He has a pacemaker in his chest. He spends more and more time in his own head, especially in his high school years. Both take more pills a day than you can shake a stick at. I still do not know what most of them are, or when they should be taken. The strange part is, my younger sister was always considered the “sickly” one. By this I do not mean that she is housebound. But she, too, has always been plagued with medical problems. Every day for her is also a struggle with fingers twisted with arthritis, braces on her wrists, dietary restrictions, and medicines for issues stemming back to her adolescence, not to
mention a rather severe lactose intolerance. Her husband has his own share of physical ailments, with lung and heart conditions that can flare up when he gets so much as a cold. COVID-19 is definitely not welcome in this house.

My sister always knew these days would come. She moved into a house a few blocks from my parents’ home of fifty-five years, fully aware that they eventually would not be able to care for themselves, despite their protests to the contrary. This was amazing because, of the three of us, she was the most prone to have clashes with my parents. But more than my older sister and I, she absorbed a spirit of prayer, service and charity from my parents. She has always had more of an eye out for the underdog than I ever did. She has always been aware of the difficulties that a neighbor might be having, and was always there to offer aid. As was my father in earlier days, her husband is often the willing vehicle through which his wife might dispatch some of this aid.

With my wife, I have travelled to the East Coast to fill in once or twice for a few days, to give my sister and her husband a chance to have some time to themselves. But just recently, I opted to go spend a couple of days alone with my parents. It was an eye-opening experience.

All things considered, it went surprisingly well. My mother was quite focused and alert for my whole stay. In fact, she was putting far too much effort into trying to do things for me, despite
often getting quite confused about how to go about doing that. My father and I had a project to work on that involved music, so we spent time at the piano together, and also just in conversation about deeper things.

The rest of the time, however, was spent simply in doing the most mundane thing: keeping us all fed. My family is very hobbit-like. A great deal of time is spent at the kitchen table, either at
a meal or a snack or a cup of tea. Just sitting with my parents at this point is so important. I felt that my time was spent mostly just starting up one session, eating and conversing, cleaning up, and then getting ready for the next one. Because of their physical condition, and their emotional neediness, I was actually afraid to leave the house. How does my sister do this? She
is also in charge of their appointments and all the paperwork associated with doctors and insurance. She is the main conduit of contact with all the cousins, nieces and nephews, and
family friends. Because my parents can no longer travel, everyone comes to visit them, and she and her husband are gracious hosts. She rarely gets to go out to do the most basic things, like shopping for food or going to the post office. Her husband, on the other hand, barely has time to get done his schoolwork; forget about writing for publication.

It’s not as though I have no experience with this sort of thing. I had three children. But I was a much younger man then, and children are a whole different challenge from adults, especially one’s own parents who have lived for so long as their own bosses and the strong support of their children. Now, our roles are reversed. But my siblings and I, and our spouses, are all in our sixties now, with plenty of physical problems of our own. And I wonder how my little sister does this day in and day out and, especially in the pandemic period, sometimes for months without relief.

But I can tell you this: prayer and a habit of looking out for the needs of others have prepared her for these days, and support her through the apparently endless series of mundane tasks, occasionally punctuated by terrifying crisis, for two people who, through no fault of their own, are becoming less attached to the present moment. She and her husband need God as they support my parents; my parents need God as they become increasingly certain that death is not far away. And my own prayers are about all I have, apart from the occasional visit, to support them from afar.

That’s it. I don’t have any arguments, let alone a profound message. I just want you caretakers to know that, at least for a little while, I see what you do more clearly, and I am so grateful.

Stephen J. Heaney
University of St. Thomas
Curatio Education Advisor