My Dad has stomach cancer and decided to end aggressive chemo and radiation treatments which made him feel even sicker and depleted his agency, his ability even to talk with me and my sibs long distance over the phone. So I’m headed there in a couple days. To companion, to take some of the load off his working wife’s shoulders, and to have The Conversation about how he wants to make this transition. The one element I’m certain of is his wish for dignity as his time approaches.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been asking close friends and colleagues about their experiences. What is important to do or not do? What needs to be said? What do you wish you had said but didn’t? I am grateful for their willingness to share feelings and wisdom gained from companioning parents along the way to the end of life. Research and information gathering is one of my coping strategies though it is likely to stop working for me in the end. Overwhelming, cleansing grief is coming my way and I expect to make the most of it.
An earlier generation talked more openly about death. You wouldn’t know it by just looking at us, but my people are country people at core. I heard the stories of church brothers building pine box coffins out in the yard while the women cooked and laid out the body inside. One tradition that still exists is taking a photo of the deceased in their open coffin. I don’t think Dad’s going to have any of that. I’ll know more later.
One thing I do know is there is a looming social crisis that too often remains private and is not openly discussed. Caring for aging parents and ourselves is a growing generational and national crisis for Baby Boomers. We need well trained and well compensated care givers for in home care at the end of life. In my family, one of the biggest fears is dying in a nursing home. If we have children, they often live long distances away, have families of their own, and are both working outside the home. Elderly parents wonder “Who is going to take care of me?”
This is a major social and economic policy challenge and an opportunity for integrated approaches to social change for mission-centered congregations. I am so relieved to learn about a transformational movement gaining strength today while linking together issues of racial justice and economic justice, domestic workers and living wages, immigration reform and economic justice, and gender justice as so many care givers are women with families of their own. Caring Across Generations is a smart, love-based coalition working to bridge the gap between the needs of an aging population and a growing demand for well-paid and well-trained domestic workers in our communities.
It is good for me to know religious communities are already participating in de-privatizing this important public issue by hosting Dialogues in their congregations among care providers, families, and social change agents.
As our family companions Dad in making this transition, I want the people helping us care for him to be not only well-trained but well paid and enjoying their work. In the end, all families want that for all involved.