A paper delivered by Peter A. Kavanaugh on November 8 at a conference of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion, entitled, "Exploring the Mind-Body-Soul Connection: Spirituality in Illness and Healing", at Holy Cross Seminary, Boston, Massachusetts, November 6-8, 2014.
I will never forget Susan. She was sitting in her wheelchair when I first met her. Her hair was disheveled. The expression on her face indicated incoherence and confusion. She looked into the distance with a vacant stare and waved her hand to and fro, senselessly. She did not recognize her family when they came to visit her. She did not remember the parents that raised her, the meal on which she dined that morning, nor the words spoken to her by the nurse only minutes before. Here, in the assisted living home, Susan spent the last several years of her life a frail, quiet, and for the most part, forgotten person.
The final season in life is full of profound changes. In some instances, this is a time of joy, forgiveness, revelation, and wisdom. When given the opportunity to reflect, and share one's legacy with younger generations, some discover new perspectives on life, and may become, for the first time, concerned with the eternal and lasting. Unfortunately, old age can also be fraught with losses and diminutions. Many suffer terribly when their bodies stop working, and they are afflicted by multiple disorders and chronic pain. Old age may involve a loss of autonomy, self-respect, or even purpose. Susan's situation is in no way unusual. Alzheimer's and memory-loss often give rise to the most challenging situations in aging.