As she grew older, I may have failed *Mabel. Although I tried to keep in touch, visiting and calling her with some regularity, I still let her down in one aspect of older adulthood: I wasn’t honest with her about difficult matters. Instead, I chose always to be positive and helpful, building up what eventually turned into only a façade of normalcy.
To be direct: Mabel and I didn’t talk candidly enough about what troubled her. She projected the desire to avoid difficult subjects—personal hygiene, activity levels, diet, health, her financial situation—and so I followed what I thought was the polite path. Thinking that her family or caregivers would surely deal with these matters, I avoided them. With her other friends and colleagues, I participated in a relationship that hardly ever dealt with down-to-earth matters that, unresolved, gradually robbed Mabel of dignity, self-worth and health itself.
I bring this up to preface a question for those of us who take care of older adults approaching their frail years: How willing and able are we to talk honestly about matters “not suitable for polite company?” For those of us approaching that stage in life, another question: How can we clearly signal to others our needs or hopes to cut through day-to-day good manners to deal with what’s really on our minds?
I don’t claim to know the greater wisdom here. There’s something to be said for being positive, not dwelling on difficulties and finding reasons for hope even in dire circumstances. And it seems proper to leave perhaps-embarrassing questions or concerns to those closest to an older adult.
Lately, though, I have come to see possible shortcomings of that kind of civility or graciousness. Family members? They may have worn out their welcome or their power to help their loved one cope with old age. Or they’re deeply exhausted. Medical personnel? They’re usually perceptive and helpful, but may be limited by legal directives, professional ethics and the time constraints of their sometimes-overloaded practices. The possible result: These conversations may never take place, or may rise only occasionally to helpful or life-changing levels.
One truth gives me hope in these situations: The body of Christ was never intended to be a polite company. Relationships among people of faith open us to the most elemental aspects of life. We profess to be proclaimers, bringers and doers of tangible good news. Jesus’ life and teachings remain our example and invitation for dealing with life’s most insistent problems. Immersed in Scripture, we regularly come face-to-face with life’s most important questions—including the gritty ones. We know each other, we are not afraid, and we are kind. We know about caregiving, personally and programmatically.
Those attributes exist in almost every congregation, which may make communities of faith primary sources and settings for heart-to-heart conversations.
Since Mabel’s death years ago, I’ve continued my friendships with a few frail older adults. Even though I may never know fully what’s the best approach, I’ve worked to make every conversation meaningful for these beloved elders. In my personal visits, letters or phone calls, I have learned how to pick up even the slightest cues from seniors that they’d like to do more than chat about shallow subjects. I’ve discovered how to ask probing-yet-polite questions. I’ve tried to imagine what thoughts might lie heavily (or joyfully) on their hearts. And I’ve strengthened my personal insistence on not repeating the approach I took with Mabel in the lives of these good people.
I don’t intend to fail them.
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