From the NY TImes a few days ago on Sisters of St Joseph caring for their dying members at home rather than hospitals. A great model for us all:

As she lay dying, Sister Dorothy declined most of her 23 medications not essential for her heart condition, prescribed by specialists but winnowed by a geriatrician who knows that elderly people are often overmedicated. She decided against a mammogram to learn the nature of a lump in her one remaining breast, understanding that she would not survive treatment.

There were goodbyes and decisions about giving away her quilting supplies and the jigsaw puzzle collection that inspired the patterns of her one-of-a-kind pieces. She consoled her biological sister, who pleaded with her to do whatever it took to stay alive.

Even as her prognosis gradually improved from hours to weeks and even months, Sister Dorothy’s goal was not immortality; it was getting back to quilting, as she has. She spread her latest on her bed: Autumnal sunflowers. “I’m not afraid of death,” she said. “Even when I was dying, I wasn’t afraid of it. You just get a feeling within yourself at a certain point. You know when to let it be.”

A convent is a world apart, unduplicable. But the Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation in this Rochester suburb, animate many factors that studies say contribute to successful aging and a gentle death — none of which require this special setting. These include a large social network, intellectual stimulation, continued engagement in life and spiritual beliefs, as well as health care guided by the less-is-more principles of palliative and hospice care — trends that are moving from the fringes to the mainstream.

For the elderly and infirm Roman Catholic sisters here, all of this takes place in a Mother House designed like a secular retirement community for a congregation that is literally dying off, like so many religious orders. On average, one sister dies each month, right here, not in the hospital, because few choose aggressive medical intervention at the end of life, although they are welcome to it if they want.

“We approach our living and our dying in the same way, with discernment,” said Sister Mary Lou Mitchell, the congregation president. “Maybe this is one of the messages we can send to society, by modeling it.”

Primary care for most of the ailing sisters is provided by Dr. Robert C. McCann, a geriatrician at the University of Rochester, who says that through a combination of philosophy and happenstance, “they have better deaths than any I’ve ever seen.”

A great breakdown on Catholicism’s take on both Euthanasia and using extraordinary means and the difference between the two. A snip:

Laura L. Carstensen, the director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University, says the convent setting calms the tendency for public policy discussion about end-of-life treatment “to devolve into a debate about euthanasia or rationing health care based on age.”

“Every time I speak to a group about the need to improve the dying process, somebody raises their hand and says, ‘You’re talking about killing old people,’ ” Dr. Carstensen said. “But nobody would accuse Roman Catholic sisters of that. They could be a beacon in talking about this without it turning into that American black-and-white way of thinking: Either we have to throw everything we’ve got at keeping people alive or leave them on the sidewalk to die.”

Often the Roman Catholic position on end-of-life issues is misconstrued as “do anything and everything necessary” but nothing in Catholic theology demands extraordinary intervention, experts say, nor do the sisters here, or their resident chaplain, Msgr. William H. Shannon, 91, advocate euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

“Killing somebody who is very, very old, with a pill or something, that isn’t right,” Sister Dorothy said. “But everybody has their own slant on life and death. It’s legitimate to say no to extraordinary means. And dying people, you can tell when they don’t want to eat or drink. That’s a natural thing.”

Indeed. We need these great women to teach us how to die well. Let us pray today for all those who are dying that they may die with dignity, peace and prayer.

Photo courtesy of James Estrin/The New York Times

One thought on “Dying Well”
  1. That was a great piece. I linked to it on FB.

    What an example of living and dying – all with great dignity and love.

    Were your ears burning this weekend? Your name was bandied about quite a bit on the shores of Lake George. All in a good way, of course!

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