The National Catholic Review
Drew Christiansen
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Atop my filing cabinet lies a typescript entitled When My Strength Is Spent. It is a theological ethics of family caregiving to the elderly. It is waiting to be sent off to Jesuit readers and then a publisherone day when the deadlines let up, the speaking engagements give out and my ghostwriting is no longer wanted. God willing, it will be sooner. The last chapter addresses questions of final transition, both for the elder and the family. One of those transitions is trusting a loved one to the care of others: home health aides, nursing homes, hospices and, ultimately, the Everlasting Arms.

My mother, my brother Phil and sister-in-law Lois and I have been caught in that transition since June of last year. Late that month Mom fell with a broken ankle. It took two months to mend, and Mom entered rehabilitation in hope of moving to assisted living. But the opportunity was cut short. A series of short-term emergenciesheart stoppage, blood clots, pneumoniaconspired to keep her a nursing home patient. At the same time, the prognosis for return of mobility grew poor. It was clear Mom could no longer live alone.

Mom had lived independently since she was widowed in 1974. First she lived in the family home in the New Brighton neighborhood of Staten Island, where she had grown up and had many cousins, close friends and civic involvements. Later she moved to a new home my brother built for her north of Boston, where he lives. For a dozen years, she lived an active life. Embraced by the local seniors, she was warmly welcomed and even invited to run for president of The Townies, once the exclusive province of native Yankees.

One by one that circle of friends passed away. The last to die was Kathy Cena, the grandmother of W.W.E. champion John Cena. When Mom gave up drivingit helped that the lease on her car expired when the decision had to be takenKathy became her lifeline, driving her wherever she needed to go. They had a wonderful life, combining their visits to doctors and medical labs with breakfast, lunch and shopping trips. When Kathy died three years ago, Mom became more and more homebound. After a time, she needed the support of a walker. At first she moved about so quickly I called her my charioteer. About three months before her hospitalization, the Visiting Nurse Service set up a program for her with a number of helpers: a nurse, a physical therapist and a home health aide.

Mom, who had looked forward eagerly to going to assisted care, has adjusted well to nursing home life. The dedicated and attentive staff make a big difference. Daily she gets exercise on her walker and does regular physical therapy and refresher training in occupational therapy. The therapists have gone out of their way to get her fitted with special shoes and an improved brace to assist her mobility. Some aides make visits from other floors to say hello.

Mom plays a lot of Boggle. It is a pastime she picked up from me. We used to play Scrabble, but Scrabble is too cumbersome for the hospital tray at her bedside, and on days when her eyesight is weaker, the Boggle tray is easier to see than magazines or books. Boggle and her reading have given her a bit of a reputation around the home as an intellectual. Some of the aides have learned to play Boggle with her, and on my last visit, I met a volunteer visitor who had picked up a set after watching Mom play. When I return to America House after a visit, I am examined about the outcome of our games. If I have lost, I am razzed for losing to my mother; if I win, I get it for beating her. Win or lose, Moms line is Pretty good for a one-eyed old lady.

I try to visit Mom as often as possible, and I extend my stays when I can, but the burden of her care falls on Phil and Lois and especially the Penacook Place staff. We could not do without their skill and devotion. Many are immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, India and Nigeria. They add immeasurably to Moms quality of life and the familys peace of mind.

They make it possible for her and so many others to make the last transition in dignity. The anti-immigrant crowd are thoroughly mistaken. These women and men keep the standard of life in America high. They are indeed ministering angels to the elderlyand their families.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

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