Valued and Remembered: On the Humanity of the Elderly and the Expiring


I intern at a hospital. On most days, my job entails taking vitals, getting water, passing out trays, and talking to patients and nurses. On some days though, there are less common tasks that I’m asked to do. Yesterday was one of those days, when I was asked to come help bag the body of a recently deceased patient. I had just come from church—specifically, a very joyful Easter service, celebrating Jesus’ victory over death. I don’t know how much more ironic you can get than that.

My fellow intern couldn’t decide if she was appalled or impressed with me when I told the nursing assistant that I’d help. Interns have the choice of whether or not they want to help out when it comes to patients who have expired, and I apparently picked the road less traveled. She watched me suit up with very large eyes, clutching her clipboard to her chest. At that point, I think I was more concerned for her than for myself.

Personally, I reasoned that eventually I’d have to deal with situations like this in the future, with the career and life mission I’m choosing to follow. Why delay the inevitable? So I suited up, and went in.

When I walked in, though, and actually looked upon the man who had once being living only an hour ago, I remembered the rest of the unspoken reasons why I wanted to help. Breathing or not, heartbeat or not, this man had been a human with humanity, a soul with importance. He was important to someone, if not to me. And if he was not important to anyone, then at least he was important to the Lord. So he was important to me. He should at least be sent off gently and with respect.

What ended up bothering me greatly though was the lack of something I felt was being given to him. It wasn’t anything overt. No one spoke of him with derision, or handled his body rudely. The nurse that was with me was very clean, very efficient, and handled the man’s body gently. Respect or disrespect perhaps aren’t the right words to describe the issue.

Perhaps it was more of the apathy that bothered me—the lack of acknowledgement that a fellow human being had passed away, alone. After he passed, he was left in his room for another couple of hours, while we waited for his family to come and claim him. Right outside his room, though, a mere 5 feet away in the hallway, it was as if nothing had happened. Everyone went about normally, business as usual. Though the nurse with me was gentle and respectful, he was almost too clean, too efficient. I got the feeling that this was a task to be done, and finished once we took off our gloves and walked back out the room.

After working in such an environment for a few months, I can understand. There’s only so much that we as nurses, doctors, or interns can do, especially with a man as old, frail, and sick as this man had been. There’s a point where we have to let go and just keep doing the best we can, for the sake of our own emotional well being. Sometimes it’s even in our orders to let go—for example, this patient was no code, or DNR (‘Do Not Resuscitate’) But even then … I can’t help but wonder if we let too much go. Specifically, our humanity, as we water down the humanity of elderly, expiring, or expired patients.

Perhaps the problem goes back even further than we think. Our treatment of elderly people, for one thing (highlighted well in this article). Why is that when a newborn child is helpless and needing attention, we consider it endearing, but when it is an elderly person, we consider it a nuisance? When babies poop their pants, or cry because they’re hungry, it’s endured as a “part of the process.” But when adults become frail and regress to a similar state, it’s repulsive or shameful? Or even when children can’t form full sentences or don’t make any logical sense, it’s cute. But when elderly people do it, it’s awkward or annoying?

Or even more generally, why is it that we value only the most “efficient” or “useful” people, with “potential” or “strength.” Do we even know what those words mean? Are we even valuing valuable things? For if I have seen correctly, it is often the things that seemed foolish at first that end up being the most greatly treasured at the end of the day.

I have to admit I have been guilty of similar judgment. I have found it awkward to talk to certain patients, who may be confused or reminiscing to a time before I was even born. I have become impatient with my mother, who is forgetting more small things over time as she gets older.

Ultimately, though, I am convicted every time I am reminded of their humanity. That patient can’t help how their body might betray them. Their memories and experiences may not be relevant to me. But they matter simply because he or she is human. My mother can’t help if she forgets something. But who am I to be frustrated with her? She raised me from frail premature infant, to temper tantrum-throwing toddler, to angsty teenager, to awkward adult who doesn’t know quite yet how being an adult works—all without simply giving up on me, or throwing me out the house. She carried me, cared for me. And as I grow from being helpless to being able, and she ages from being able to being helpless, who am I not to do the same unto her, as she did unto me my entire life? I will carry her, and care for her, as Christ first did for us all.

The Bible may not have the exact words of “geriatric justice.” But it does talk about respecting the elderly. Throughout the books of Proverbs, young adults are constantly exhorted to respect elders, and see and value their age as a sign of wisdom. Furthermore, in both New and Old Testaments, God commands his people to give justice to the widows, elderly women who no longer had the support of husbands or children, instead of taking advantage of their situations or ignoring their needs. Even Jesus, while dying slowly on the cross, took the effort and time to make sure that his grieving elderly mother would have someone to care for her after he died, entrusting her to the care of his disciple.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face…So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull… There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple…standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple,“Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:1-26)

If Jesus has time to do this while dying a slow and painful death, then what excuse do any of us have to not care?

So it is one of my constant prayers that I might never become so proud as to come to believe that those who are aging or fading are of any less value, because they are not. They were once where we are. We will one day be where they are. And when we are in their shoes, will the next generation following us value us?

I think that will depend on the example we set now.


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