Saturday, November 20, 2004

Aging Gracefully

Having spent considerable time with an elderly couple during the past year, I sometimes found myself wondering why God allows some people to live way beyond the normal lifespan. I watched their senses deteriorate, their awareness fade, and their health fail. After several falls and other medical emergencies, it became evident that they were no longer able to care for themselves. Fortunately, they were able to afford hiring fulltime live-in care-givers, but even with assistance, their quality of life continued to diminish.

Broken hips, cuts and bruises, surgeries, symptoms of Alzheimer's and daily dealings with pain and suffering made me think about what all of us may be headed for should we live that long. What will happen to those who cannot afford needed care? What will the future hold for the elderly in this society that seems to be losing respect for life? Will euthanasia become an accepted alternative when medical science keeps us going beyond our productive years? Why would God permit people to suffer like this? I wondered if this was their purgatory on earth, paying reparation before death for a faster road to heaven.

Despite all of their problems and being barely ambulatory, this couple insists on attending Mass together every weekend. Other church-goers often wince at the sight of these two octogenarians straining to climb the 13 steps to the vestibule. Sometimes, it appears they just won't make it. They stop, grasping the railing with both hands, reminiscent of Christ struggling to carry His Cross to Calvary.

They pray aloud before each meal, and one can sense a spiritual presence in their home. As various health care providers come to visit, conversation often turns to faith in God. Several of the live-in caregivers who were not particularly religious and had problems of their own, began asking me to pray for them. One of them who was raised Catholic, but had not set foot in a Catholic Church for 35 years, began attending Mass again.

As I witnessed all of this, something suddenly occurred to me. God was still using this elderly couple as an instrument in His hands to bring others closer to Him. These two old people, who many of us had written off as having lived beyond their years, are still doing more important work than any of the rest of us around them. Perhaps they are not even aware of the power of God acting within them, but because their relationship with Him is so alive, others are moved by this spiritual presence in the home.

I also believe that none of these encounters occur by accident. When we allow ourselves to be used in this way, God will bring us together as necessary. Suddenly, we see purpose in the daily struggles of the elderly. Good can come from it, not only through redemptive suffering, but by bringing about conversion in others. There is no more important work on this earth than saving souls, and we are never too old or too weak to allow God to work through us. Life can always have meaning and purpose when we nurture our spiritual relationship with Our Lord.