Friday, February 10, 2012

Ministry to the Aging

The Capuchins take seriously their foundational charism of fraternity. They have always prided themselves on taking care of their senior friars from within the fraternity, so that their elders may live their religious vocation to the end of their days with dignity.

This morning the postulant brothers were privileged to receive a history lesson on the pastoral care of our senior friars. Fr. Senan Taylor, who has an advanced degree in gerontology, also dispelled whatever false myths and stereotypes we may have had concerning the elderly in the 21st-century United States.

To start off, we were wowed by reality. Did you know the fastest growing age group in the U.S. today is the octagenarians? And the second-fastest growing cohort is the centenarians! Brother Senan said we are in the middle of a "longevity revolution": not only are people living longer, but they are living in better health, relatively speaking, than elders of yesteryear. The New York/New England province of Capuchin Franciscans reflects society as well as any other community. The largest cohort in our province is the seniors, the brothers age 70 and 80 and over. God willing, our eldest friar, Fr. Walter O'Brien, will become our first centenarian when he turns 100 in October.

Contrary to the postulants' estimates, a very small percentage of seniors reside in nursing homes, only about 4 percent. Of the remainder, 20 percent live with multiple chronic conditions in their own homes. And the majority, 75 percent, live in good health and are active outside their household. As it is in society, so it is with the Capuchins: 75 percent of our brothers live active lives. The elderly are not by and large decrepit and demented. The reasons for this are simple: antibiotics and improved medical science, and wellness education.

Like many other groups in society, the Capuchins have learned how to support their elders so that they may grow old with grace and good health. In Brother Senan's account, the friars have adjusted to the longevity revolution with a combination of common sense, good luck, providence.

In former days, the elderly friars were sent to live at the houses of formation and study and supported by the novices. Senior care as we know it today was nonexistent, but the younger friars did what they could to treat their elders with compassion, and in return they received from the more healthy seniors a source of spiritual support for what was then a rather austere monastic life.

Then, as the longevity revolution started, the number of senior friars increased while the number of young friars fell sharply following the Second Vatican Council. The large houses of formation closed, and the senior friars were consolidated. But they were left without one-on-one support from either young friars, who now commuted to various colleges for their studies, or middle-aged friars, who went off-site to ministry. Another problem was that the friaries where the elders resided were not senior-friendly, basically being barracks best suited for young men entering the spiritual boot camp that was novitiate. To remedy this situation, the Capuchins developed their first-ever senior friar residence in Yonkers, N.Y., acquiring a parochial school building vacated by a group of Christian Brothers and converting it into bedrooms with easy accessibility to a chapel, bathrooms, recreation room, and refectory. With the hiring of a cook and housekeeper, the senior friars could now safely continue to live independently and do all the so-called "activities of daily living" (e.g., bathing, dressing, eating) on their own.

Once the province reconciled itself to the idea of an age-segregated fraternity -- a concept that, in the opinion of some, went against Franciscan values -- the new community, known as the St. Clare Senior Friar Residence, proved to be a blessing from God. For this living arrangement allowed the men to have a religious life. They would not feel like they were being a burden to anyone. They would retain their sense of self-worth. And by living with their cohorts, the brothers, many of whom entered the order together or within five to ten years of one another, had a common history and culture and shared experiences to bind them. By sharing their stories, their personalities would remain intact. With their physical health assured and a positive attitude, these friars were able to continue their Capuchin life.

Over the years, the fraternity at St. Clare has diversified, and so have the needs. As the seniors aged, some of them began to need assistance with simple activities like showering and dressing. And as time wore on, some began to need more intensive care. The Capuchins adjusted by completely renovating one of their properties on the campus of Sacred Heart Parish in Yonkers and building it to meet nursing home code. Now the province has the capacity to house every brother over the age of 70, if need be, and the facilities to allow them to "age in place" -- that is, to function in independence to assisted living to care, until the age of 100 and beyond. And thanks to Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, the province can employ four home health aides to assist Father Senan and Fr. Michael Connolly to provide round-the-clock care for all the seniors.

God willing, St. Clare Friary will never reach full capacity, because our province got religion on wellness about 30 years ago. There was a time when friars were habitual smokers; they enjoyed a few good drinks, some brothers more than a few; and they tended toward workaholism. Realizing that preventive and proactive care was in the long run the best senior care and the most cost-efficient, the province resolved that its brothers had to reform their personal habits. By the 1990s, alcoholism was no longer tolerated; smoking was prohibited inside the friaries; diet began to improve; and exercise machines were introduced in the friaries. It used to be that friars in formation put on weight after they entered; we postulants are striving to be fitter than we are today when we take our vows! We want to be good to Brother Body.

With good physical health, sufficient wealth to meet basic needs and receive medical care, and a positive attitude toward getting older -- as well as a safe, clean, friendly environment for aging in place -- Father Senan says every Capuchin can age successfully and live out his vocation to the fullest. Amen -- may it be so!

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