Deacon Marty Perry remembers pushing his fragile mother’s wheelchair down the hall when he’d pause in the journey back to her room.
From the opposite direction, another wheelchair stopped and the elderly sister sitting in it grasped Kathleen Perry’s hand. “I love you,” Kathleen said, although her illness had left her barely able to speak.
“My dear friend,” replied Sister Martha, who had been Kathleen’s first caregiver when she and her husband, Joseph, moved into St. Martin’s Home in 2000. Sister Martha now herself was in failing health and in need of care.
“The relationships that are built are true relationships, built on the exchange of care and love,” Marty Perry said in regard to the Little Sisters of the Poor home in Catonsville, Maryland.
In sickness and health
The Little Sisters of the Poor are an international congregation of Catholic women religious founded in 1839 by St. Jeanne Jugan. The sisters serve in more than 30 countries, and their mission is to “offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.”
Joseph and Kathleen Perry were 30 and 27, respectively, when they married. Both were active in charitable and social justice work and attempted religious life, but God had other plans for them.
For five years, the couple waited to be blessed with children. With no pregnancies in sight, the Perrys adopted two children. “That opened up the floodgates,” laughed Marty. The Perrys went on to have 10 natural-born children and take in five foster children.
When Joseph Perry showed signs of Alzheimer’s and Kathleen struggled with osteoporosis, Marty took both of his parents into his home. However, their health failed to the point where Marty needed to find another care option and decided to try the Little Sisters.
Joseph was in worse health, so he was kept in the nursing unit, while Kathleen stayed in assisted living. Every morning, she would ride her motorized wheelchair downstairs to spend her days with her husband. At night, she would go back up to her apartment. It got to the point where Joseph didn’t recognize his wife. “It was a very difficult day for her,” said Marty Perry, “the day when he looked at her and said, ‘Do you know where my wife is?’”
But Marty said they were still at peace with each other and Joseph seemed to know he belonged to Kathleen. Every night, they would pray the Rosary together. “This gentle woman being entirely faithful even though he didn’t know she was his wife — and [she] did it anyway because she loved him,” Marty said. “Where the body fails, the spirit is still very much at work.”
‘Christ in the dying’
Physician-suicide advocates would have you think a patient bedridden and with no memory would be better off with an “aided” death. But Joseph would always say thank you for the littlest thing the nursing staff did for him, even if it was a procedure that was painful. Paid staff said interacting with the loving father and husband “gave them a sense of purpose” in dealing with home and personal stress.
Saint Jude Hospice serves counties within Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin to bring healing to those with life-limiting or terminal illness, who — along with their health care provider — have decided to seek comfort care over a cure. No one is turned away because of an inability to pay.
“Our mission is first and foremost to take care of Christ in the dying,” said Tom Moreland, who founded Saint Jude Hospice and became CEO in 2010. Saint Jude strives to spread the New Evangelization and support the Church — in addition to showing that hospice is the answer to the ethical dilemma of assisted suicide.
“We believe we can combat any scenario someone puts in front of us,” Moreland said of arguments given in the assisted-suicide debate. Moreland likened the care the hospice provides for the dying to the help a pregnancy center offers a fearful mother in a crisis.
“All those things that you’re scared of — the inconvenience, the pain that they may have, the family dynamics — we do everything we can to alleviate that,” Moreland said.
“Palliative care is the answer because it responds to the request of the suffering person for comfort, support and companionship in the face of death,” Sister Constance said. “Only when we let a person’s life come to its natural conclusion as God wills it — and not according to our own will or plans — can we be confident that all that was meant to be accomplished, shared or resolved in that person’s life has been realized.”
‘They can trust us’
This scenario seems to hold true for the Perrys. Marty said both of his parents held on for a few weeks longer than expected, and it was during that time that some family members made their peace with their parent.
“The fact that these kind of healing moments come is all part of the beauty of the end of life,” Marty said.
What does the end of life look like in organizations such as these?
“The summit of our mission of hospitality has always been the vigil with the dying, by which we assure a constant presence at the bedside of residents who are nearing the threshold of the Father’s house,” Sister Constance said. “I can think of no more intense expression of the family spirit with which our homes are imbued than this vigil at the bedside of the dying residents. It’s an intense moment of communion.”
The Perry family experienced this vigil with the dying. Nine of the 12 children were gathered into his mother’s tiny room, as well as a dozen or so sisters, singing hymns and “praying her peacefully into her reward.”
That building relationships with not only the patient, but the family, is very key to the ministry, Moreland said.
“It’s so important that they know that they can trust us to take care of their loved ones,” he said. “And not just take care of them, but do it in a way that they can go to bed at night and know Mom and Dad lived until natural death.”
Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently developed “Life Affirming Choices: End of Life Decision Making,” a series of seminars that outlines end-of-life care from the Church’s perspective for seniors and their caretakers. Each seminar, which includes a video, ranges in length from five to 35 minutes. Topics include Pain Management, Hospice and Palliative Care; Advanced Health Care Directives and Do Not Resuscitate Orders; Withholding and Withdrawing Treatment; Assisted Nutrition and Hydration; and Life Affirming Choices. For more information or to view the videos, go to phillycatholiclife.org/life-affirming-choices-3/