Pastoral care for older adults

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The Bible, in passages like Proverbs 16:31, glorifies old age.

"Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained by a life that is just."

But aging can bring physical and emotional challenges, and churches are positioned to help seniors adjust to those challenges, including end-of-life issues.

On Sept. 26, nearly 100 Catholic Charities parish liaisons representing 41 parishes came to Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna to share experiences and network on ways to help the elderly in their parishes. The "Responsive Pastoral Care of Older Adults" conference was also a way for Catholic Charities staff to hear what kinds of services parishes need to provide to their senior citizens.

The parish liaison network provides a partnership between Catholic Charities and diocesan parishes to help ensure effective services to the poor and to senior citizens.

Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities President Art Bennett began the day with a prayer and introduced Gracie Ortiz, program director at St. Martin de Porres Senior Center in Alexandria, who gave an overview of the day.

Father Michael T. Orlowsky, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Kilmarnock, blessed prayer shawls provided by Catholic Charities and offered them to anyone who knew someone who was sick and could benefit from the blessed shawls.

Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Clare Hunter, director of the Respect Life Office, gave a presentation on suffering and other end-of-life issues.

Sister Clare first responded to what she said were incorrect interpretations of statements made by Pope Francis on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception. He said the church was "obsessed" with these issues.

She quoted the pope who said in an interview that appeared in the Jesuit magazine America: "I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up."

Sister Clare spoke of the dignity of the human person and that we are all created in God's image.

"The body is sacred, and it must be treated that way," she said.

There are three kinds of suffering: physical, emotional and spiritual, said Sister Clare. Humans were not created to suffer and die, but do, because of original sin. We are redeemed from death and suffering through Jesus Christ.

Suffering is a reality of life, she said, and it creates solidarity. She quoted Blessed John Paul II: "What is revealed about the body through suffering is its openness to the world in the form of vulnerability. This openness guides us to solidarity with our fellow men; the body becomes a place of communion by means of compassion."

There were copies of the Arlington and Richmond dioceses' advanced medical directive in participants' packets and Sister Clare reviewed some key elements.

There are terms that are used in the directive that are part of Catholic moral teaching. Proportionate means are "measures that provide a reasonable hope of benefit and do not impose excessive burdens on the patient and family."

Nutrition and hydration are moral and obligatory proportionate means.

On the other hand, disproportionate means are measures that do not offer reasonable hope or benefit and are a burden on the family. These include measures that can cause harm or undesirable side effects.

After Sister Clare's presentation, attendees broke into small focus groups to share ideas on what works in their parish.

Some parishes feel the strain of the elderly more than others. Father Orlowsky said that although St. Francis de Sales is small, 80 percent of his parishioners are over 60.

Guadalupe Thompson, a volunteer at Holy Family Church in Dale City, said she learned several new things from her focus group.

"It gave me some ideas for my parish," she said. "We need more volunteers. We need to reach out to our parishioners."

Find out more

For info about Catholic Charities go to ccda.net. For copies of the diocesan advanced medical directive go to arlingtondiocese.org/respectlife/documents/amd.pdf.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013