I remember I was walking down the hall one Sunday afternoon, after a very hectic lunch. On the third floor of the Mullen Home for the Elderly in Denver, Colorado, naptime had commenced for most of the residents. The sisters were most likely at lunch and recreation; a time that was, for them, short and very deserved after a usually busy morning. The nurses were keeping up with their charts at their stations, and the CNAs were making rounds, attending to each resident who had called them.
It was quiet, except for a weak voice calling for help in one of the rooms at the further end of the hall. This didn’t cause for any alarm, however, as the third floor housed those most advanced in age and with mental disabilities. Dementia, paranoia and severe disability present in various residents created a different atmosphere, demanding extra care and virtue from the able-bodied caretakers assigned to the floor.
I sought out the voice and found a lovely little lady (we’ll call her Marisa), whom I had often assisted at mealtimes, in her wheelchair, facing the window overlooking the city. Upon asking how I could help her, she told me her legs hurt due to the muscle spasms she often had. Marisa was also looking for her sister, Katie, who had told her she would stop by after work. Except Katie had been dead for twenty years. Marisa was ninety-four now, with advanced dementia. Due to recurrent confusion and frustration, it was difficult to get along with her unless you could figure out what she needed. Her sons would visit her once or twice a week, but on afternoons like these, she was often left alone.
I made conversation with her for a little while, thinking of excuses for why Katie wasn’t showing up.
“She’s probably running late, Marisa. Why don’t you give her a few hours and see if she’ll call?”
Marisa agreed, commenting on how her sister never knew how to be on time. With her frustration still lingering, I tried to distract her by asking about her day. Then we prayed a rosary together. I held her hand for a little while, gave her a compliment on her freshly painted red nails, and then stood up to leave. I would have stayed for longer, but activity time was about to start. The sisters told me we weren’t supposed to pick favorites, but I wished she could be my grandma.
As I was about to reach the elevator, I heard her calling for help again. It broke my heart because I knew I if I went back in, she would ask again who I was and why Katie wasn’t there. This soul was still in her vicious cycle of loneliness, pain, and confusion. But at least she wasn’t alone for the hour I was with her.
Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. In our world of privilege, luxury, opportunity, and comfort, it is easy to forget what it can be like to be in need. But if we think we can escape being poor, our Creator grants us the gift of old age. Each one of us will be robbed of our abilities, independence and in some cases, our mind. Our senses will deteriorate and simple tasks like eating will become a struggle. It is a time that demands patience, humility and a never ending source of love. This applies not only for the elder but also for the caretaker.
One woman knew the extent of this so well. St. Jeanne Jugan of France founded the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1839, after taking in a homeless elderly woman. Today, nearly every country and state in the U.S. has a home specifically for the elderly, especially the poorest of them. A small community of sisters resides in each home, along with the nurses, CNAs, cooks, laundresses, and countless others who come in each day to care for the residents. By the vow of hospitality, the sisters are called to carry on the mission of their foundress to serve the elderly poor in their last years and at their deathbed. As a result, a sense of familial love is created in each home. Within the interactions of everyone in the home, countless virtues reside within each person. The elderly are tended to physically, mentally, and spiritually, because no one should face the end of their life in loneliness, fear, or abandonment.
So I encourage you, if you are seeking to serve, find the elderly poor around you. It could be your family members or neighbor. If you find you have the desire to work at a home of the Little Sisters of the Poor or if you are a young woman discerning a vocation in the religious life, find the nearest home in your state and contact them. There are multiple volunteer and job opportunities that they offer. You can be single, married, consecrated and of any age. No matter who you are, you won’t regret it, because you may be just the one to offer companionship, love, and care to an elder who needs it most.
For more information, you can visit http://littlesistersofthepoor.org