wednesday, january 18, 2023
A blog about aging, spirituality and aging, honoring our aging, physical and psychological aspects of aging, healthy aging, gifts of aging, transforming the culting of aging and aging services, ageism, and quality of life in later years,
wednesday, january 18, 2023
November 13 Sister Nicholas Hinkes 1966. Age 93
This is what greeted me yesterday morning as I looked at our Congregational “Pilgrim Book” which lists birthdays, feast days and death anniversaries of our Sisters. I know that I always smile a bit each November 13, noting Sister Nicholas’ death anniversary. We had a ‘history’.
During my two years of initial formation before my novitiate, each Sunday afternoon (weather permitting) we postulants and candidates went over to St. Joseph’s Hall, our “infirmary” with an assignment. Janet Griffin and I were assigned to Sister Nicholas. We helped her into her wheelchair and made our way outside. Janet and I wheeled Sister Nicholas over to our beautiful Lourdes Grotto with its flowerbed of roses nearby. We often walked the path of the outdoor Stations of the Cross. After an hour or so each Sunday, we would make our way with Sister back to her room.
Sister was an amputee and her getting into a wheelchair with only one leg took some maneuvering. I remember Sister’s eyes big with apprehension while Janet and I helped her into her wheelchair, and until she was carefully, safely seated.
What did we talk about? I don’t remember. I do know that neither Janet nor I ever asked her about her earlier life, ministry, community experiences, or the family she left in Germany. As I looked at her notice yesterday morning, I realized that she knew Mother St. Andrew, was just a young woman in her late 20s when Mother St. Andrew came home from her patriarchally imposed exile. Oh, how I wish I had asked her for stories about Mother St. Andrew! It is a regret that won’t go away.
There is another reason I smile and it is in recognition of and gratitude for the intentional intergenerational relationships these Sunday afternoons provided. I am reminded of a workshop I attended some years ago when the speaker asked us to share the first time we ever went into a nursing home. I told the group it was when I was in my 40s and my parents were moving from their home into a nursing home. But I had to correct myself. I remembered Sister Nicholas. I remembered the times we Junior Sisters took our hour keeping vigil with dying Sisters. “Wait,” I told the workshop speaker. “My first visit to a nursing home was when I was a teenager. It was at our convent, but I didn’t think of it as a nursing home because it was home; it was part of our convent home. The Sisters were part of our home.”
“We have produced our own narrative of diminishment.”
Sister Tere Maya, CCVI, addressed our Congregational Assembly this past June and among the riches of her presentation was the sentence repeated in this post’s title.
Several years ago, our Congregation was engaged in a strategic plan process which engaged the membership in very rich, participative committee work. One committee within that process was the Viability Committee. At our very first meeting, a Sister with the appropriate professional background had graphs and charts of Congregational demographics. You know what I’m talking about, the same kind of charts we see from CARA that show smaller and smaller numbers and a higher and higher median age across Religious Institutes in the U.S.
After a short presentation, committee member Sister Maria Carolina expressed her discontent with the material. “I don’t want to see just these figures. They don’t show us where our Congregational vitality is or where the potential is for deeper life among us.” I warmed to that response and that perspective immediately!
Sister Maria Carolina’s response gives voice to concern about a fallacy too easily succumbed to when we look at numerical data. Jay Wellons, M.D., in his medical memoir1 illustrates this well in a story he tells of his mentor, Dr. Miller, a pediatric general surgeon and professor. This doctor had removed thousands of coins from children’s gastric or air passageways throughout his pediatric practice. Miller kept each coin and catalogued them. He tabulated his data and determined which coin was most commonly involved. They were coins from the Denver mint. “Beware those Denver coins”, he would tell his students, then continuing his lecture, making the point that statistics can easily be misused to find a “meaningless answer.”
Miller is not alone. LCWR, in its work on the emerging future of religious life has, in the persons of Sister Ann Munley IHM and Sister Carol Zinn SSJ, given similar responses when presenting those CARA graphs to LCWR members. Both of these women encourage participants to look beyond the figures, not stopping at the numbers. What other ideas, issues, questions do those figures raise, these Sisters ask us.
In my own reflections, I ask, “What is the challenge of smaller numbers and a higher median age? How is it viewed? As a threat or an opportunity? And however we see the data, to what actions, to what new mindset do they call us ?
I don’t have a clear answer to those questions, but I am so eager to engage with others about them. It’s hard because, I believe, it is so difficult to make the mental turn away from the prevailing social and cultural constructs. It is hard to unlearn that bigger is better, and that young is good and old is bad. That’s what our western culture tells us, what it has instilled in each of us since our toddler years.
But a countercultural perspective is precisely the prophetic witness that we women religious are called to live and witness in this time. It will be realized through prayer, long and frequent communal conversations, deep listening, sharing our dreams and daring to act. For me as a Sister of Divine Providence, it is also daring to trust God’s Abundant Providence with abandon!
We live into the future by how we live the present. Through God’s Providence, “We are the ones; we are enough.”
1Wellons, J. M.D. All that Moves Us: A Pediatric Neurosurgeon, His Young Patients, and Their Stories of Grace and Resilience. New York: Random House, 2022
I share here a post from "Being Heard" from blogger Sonya Barsness, a friend and ally in working to transform the culture of nursing homes.
Sonya if not only right on target in this post, but makes her point in a very creative style of writing. Enjoy this two-minute read here .
The Sisters of Mercy have a beautiful Advent series of reflections available on their website. I quote here from Sister Victoria Incrivaglia's post of November 22, shortly before Thanksgiving. This excerpt is a reflection of some of the Mercy Sisters around their experience of the COVID-induced isolation. I found it very stirring and share it in that spirit. To read the entire article click here .
"I asked some community members to reflect on their experiences of COVID-19, especially those who had to go into quarantine and isolation. One individual shared how she needed to regain her grounding. There had been a feeling as if a curtain had been lowered, and she had no idea of when it would be raised or how long all of us would be in the dark. In time, she found her prayer and reflective moments to become more real and intense. She described how this type of quiet and solitude seemed to wrap the Earth with a giant blanket of peace and stillness.
"A member of the Visitation Community, who resides at Catherine’s Residence, the retirement center in St. Louis Missouri, described the isolation as similar to the first 15 years of being in her cloistered monastery, prior to changes within their Community; it felt to her like a long silent retreat. When she tested positive for COVID, she experienced feelings of fear about what could happen. The healing brought relief and gratitude.
"Other members of Catherine’s Residence described the experience as constricting, lonely, being in solitary confinement, challenging. Meals arrived with a human carrier, there were extended hand waves to neighbors across the hall and the ongoing change of seasons witnessed through the windows. The time also presented a deeper side for reflection: Who am I? What do I believe? Prayer became that of an anchoress.
"These realities of having a home, being well-fed and cared for during the pandemic, brought insights, and the experience emphasized our privileged status. The return to routine of gathering for Liturgy, prayers, meals and socials deepened the gratitude of belonging to the Community of Mercy.
"The movement through COVID-19 demonstrated the resilience of our members. In the absence of noise, movement and chaos, silence manifests the voice of God who calls to us each day."
A friend "sent a notice of a book she thought might interest us. It is 'Embracing Age: How Catholic Nuns Became Models of Aging Well' by Anna Corwin, published by Rutgers Press.
What word are you inclined to pair with aging?
Some very common pairings may come to mind because we hear them frequently from retreat directors, university professors, noted writers and/or presenters, even consultants to religious communities. The following often-heard pairings come to mind quickly for me:
Aging and diminishment
Aging and loss
Aging and decline
Aging and illness
Aging and poor health
Aging and letting go
Just this morning I read an article by a Sister who stated her age as 57. The thesis of her piece was that as we age, we should acknowledge that we will be moving on from employment to retirement for one reason or another, and that we should do so "with grace".
The author gave several examples of signs that tell her, "I really am getting old." She notes trouble with her knee and hip; a loss in her hearing acuity; her need for trifocals. She ends that listing by noting, "I can still do everything I used to do, but I do notice I'm slowing a bit."
Our culture has oppressed us with the social construct of equating aging with decline. I would say to this Sister, "With your 57 years of life, 57 years of experience, what do you experience within yourself beyond the physical changes that you note?" I can imagine Sister could tell me of her long-term, meaningful friendships she has garnered over the years, both inside her community and beyond, and how they have enriched her life. She would acknowledge the deepened skills, insights and nuances of navigating her ministerial role as a high school classroom teacher that only years and experience can provide. She might be aware that because of her life experiences, she reads a novel, or the newspaper, or a biography with much more insight than she was capable of twenty or thirty years ago.
Gene Cohen, in his book, "The Mature Mind: The Power of the Aging Brain" depends on years of research around aging to reach his conclusion that we must turn our present paradigm of aging on its head! Cohen doesn't just give us a "positive" view of aging, in the sense that what he says is said to make us feel good. Yes, it does make us feel good. The important factor is that his work and his conclusions are based on data!
Another Sister spoke about aging in my reading this morning. She sees with a different lens, not the social construct of aging and decline. Sister Mercedes L. Casas Sanchez, FSpS , of Mexico, addressed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in August and her comments included this: The nuns (and it applies to every old person) "walk like trees loaded with fruit, bent over with fruitfulness."
In a post some months ago, I introduced my readers to Pogo. The pictures accompanying the post showed one Sister after another, each with a warm smile, interacting with or just appreciating Pogo.
What I did not include in that post was a little more information about Pogo himself. I didn't remark that Pogo is an old dog. And another thing, Pogo has only three legs. He's crippled. When he was still a puppy, he was hit by a vehicle, necessitating the amputation of his right leg at the hip. When he was adopted from the shelter, Pogo had already lost that leg.
Are those harsh words, not-to-be-used words, 'old', and 'crippled'?
The word crippled is considered offensive because it describes, Pogo in this case, in terms of his limitations or disability. It is an ableist term. Ableism discriminates against persons with physical limitations in favor of able-bodied persons.
Of itself, the word old is neutral, neither offensive nor unwarranted in its use for a person or, in this case, Pogo who has lived a long time. It is society's view of old age that make this word unacceptable in the eyes of some. You know, the attitude that 'old is bad and young is good' screamed to us in our culture every day through every possible medium.
If one would ask any of the Sisters about Pogo, I daresay that, to a person, the response would be an immediate smile and some words of affection for that little dog, that little dog that brings so much joy and happiness. Not a single person would say, for example, "Oh, that poor dog. He's old, you know. And he is crippled. He just needs to be someplace where somebody can take care of him. The poor thing. It's really sad --- old and crippled."
The universal outlook is to see and experience Pogo first and foremost for his strengths, his lovability and the joy and the richness he brings to all he meets. Not a bad perspective! Why don't we react the same way about old people? Do we first and foremost see "decline" and lock our view of old people into that terrible, negative little prison?
There is a growing awareness among thought leaders in the aging services profession that it is a much more valid and certainly a healthier, life-giving perspective to see older adults in their communities first in terms of their strengths and their gifts. Prior to the sheet in the medical record that lists diagnoses and comorbidities should be a sheet with the narrative of the gifts and strengths which that person brings to the community. How will their gifts, talents, skills and passion contribute to a more vibrant community? And how will the community provide an environment that encourages and facilitates the use of those gifts?
Jill Vitale-Aussem is one such thought leader. She is quite passionate and articulate around this concept of recognizing and honoring strengths in older adults. Moments ago, I stepped away from my blog and went to check my Facebook news. By God's Providence (no coincidence!) Jill had just posted a piece on this very topic of seeing and honoring the gifts that older adults bring and want to utilize. Jill writes about a letter she had gotten from a woman who had moved from her community to another State. In that letter, the writer shared with Jill her memories of life in that retirement community. Spoiler Alert! The woman did not talk about all the fine services available to her in this retirement community. She wrote about the joy and sense of contentment that comes from having purpose and meaning in life -- yes, even in a retirement community.
It is less than a two-minute read, and you can find it here.
Pogo lives in a happy convent home on our motherhouse campus with Sister Bernadette. Pogo spreads happiness much beyond that one household, however, when Sister Bernadette takes Pogo over to the main convent building to visit the Sisters who live there. See for yourself!
It is trite to reiterate the fact that animal companions bring us joy, or to point to the voluminous research documenting the psychological and physiological benefits bestowed on us humans by non-human animal companions.
But I don't write about that today. I show the joy Pogo brings to my Sisters, the gift that Pogo is.
In my next post, I offer a few other thoughts about Pogo and those who love him within the context of how unconscious social constructs influence our responses.
Unil then --
Thank you, Pogo, for being who you are and for what you have always and continue to bring to all those you meet. You are so loved!
Last Spring, early into the pandemic, we Sisters of Divine Providence were invited to share our "Providence Reflections". Twice a week we find a response to this invitation on our electronic bulletin board. Many times the short message refers to thoughts about life, prayer, Providence values, compassion, or ministry during the pandemic; at time a members of our elected leadership team may send a message of an administrative update, or a reflection.
Recently Sister Ramona, who lives at our motherhouse, shared a reflection and I have her permission to share it here. When I read this message, I was so aware that these signs, these marks of pandemic time, circumscribe life in so many motherhouses and provincial houses today. And what I also know to be present still is an ongoing intentionality of seeking ways to be of service to others. What shape does this service to others take? I've read of mask-making, phone calls to one's 'pandemic partner', and letter-writing. A major communal effort is the private and communal prayer for justice, equality and foro comfort for so many suffering and oppressed as a consequence of the pandemic,
Sisters' lives have been lives of service to others through some exercise of the physical and/or spiritual works of mercy. I believe that one of the major frustrations of this pandemic time is looking for ways to continue this service as we are confined to our physical spaces and physical distancing. We are a resilient group, though, and we will find a way!
Meanwhile, my gratitude for being a part of this global circle of women.
From Sister Ramona:
To "read the signs of the times" is a common practice of ours. We have done it for years. Some signs remain relevant: poverty is all around us, family life cries for support, discrimination and racism are alive and well in our country.
But now there are very different signs unique to these pandemic times. Everyone in our building wears a mask. Some wear shields or plastic cover garments. Employees wear gloves and carry bottles of Sanitizer. Our place of worship looks strange when we come together to pray. Worshipers sit far apart; the chapel looks empty – almost vacant. Yet some have to go to another space to worship via technology. Signs throughout the buildings control the movement of people within. The masks, the distances, the sanitizing. I ask myself: what do these signs say to me? Am I hearing God's call? What is it? Have I connected all these signs to our Chapter Statement: "To hear the cry of pain and anguish of the poor, the immigrants, women and Earth"? Some tough questions to answer. Yet there they are.
In the effort to keep nursing home residents safe, there have been strict guidelines resulting in -- 7 months now -- of isolation, or these older adults being confined to their rooms. Period. The results of this prolonged isolation show themselves in the physical, mental and emotional decline. The link to both a video and the printed transcript of the 3-minute news clip illustrates this in the stark reality that it is.
For those who have appointed or elected authority for the care of their Sisters, these months have been very stressful with a full focus on "keeping our Sisters safe". That sense of safety and security also applies to one's sense of well-being, of being connected with others, of finding joy and comfort in what the day brings. It is a tall order to fill in this time, but that does not lessen the mandate that care must go beyond physical well-being. It is stated well in the words of a beloved labor song, "Bread and Roses" -- "Hearts starve as well as bodies. Give us bread but give us roses too."
The link to the video is here
Steep learning curve