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Supporting Sick Elderly People

Bishop Don Sproxton recently addressed the 28th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers (Health Care Pastoral) in Rome which examined the theme The Church at the service of sick elderly people: care for people with neurodegenerative pathologies. Below is a full copy of his address.


28th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers- Vatican City, November 2013

Your Excellencies, Reverend Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is a joy to be with you today to talk about the action of the Church for sick elderly people. I also wish to recognise the presence today of Rowena McNally, the chair of the Stewardship Board of Catholic Health Australia, who has joined us for these important deliberations, as well as Professor Fran McInerny and Professor Michelle Campbell from Australian Catholic University.
Speaking in this great city last November, Pope Benedict XVI told residents at a residential aged care home that “the quality of a society or civilisation can be judged by how it treats the elderly”. When we consider that alongside the mandate that Jesus gives the apostles – “Preach the Gospel and heal the sick”, one would struggle to find a group of people more worthy of the Church’s love and care than older people who are in poor health.
That is why the Church places such an emphasis on the care – physical, psychological and spiritual – of people in the later years of life. While hospitals affiliated with a range of faiths, or none, can provide high-quality physical care for older people, the Church provides the sort of holistic care that nourishes the body as well as the soul.
The most obvious way that the Church is able to do that is through the provision of pastoral care, thanks to the generous efforts of people in parishes across the country. The ministry of priests and deacons continues to be a vital help to the aged who long for the strength of the Sacraments. As the Church adapts to a smaller pool of priests, lay people have been willing to assist in the sharing of Holy Communion with people who are unable to attend Mass because of an illness.
Parish communities have been successful in engaging with the aged care hospitals to offer social activities for their residents. In this way, former parishioners remain connected to their home parish, as well as with their families and friends. A growing need for home visits to lonely house-bound parishioners is being met by members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Several of our Secondary Schools have worked with aged care institutions in their local areas to create programs of community service for their students. These provide opportunities for the students to visit, especially those in care who do not receive any visitors, and to spend a reasonable amount of time with some residents reading to them and listening to the stories about their lives they are very ready to relate. The students benefit from engaging with the elderly from a human point of view as there are many of our young people who do not have grandparents.
The Catholic Church throughout the world has long been a leading provider of care for older people, through our hospitals and aged care services. In the Australian context, we have a population of about 22 million and the Catholic portion is around 5 million. The Australian government has set its planning for an increase of places for elderly people in aged care facilities from 25 to 113 per 1000. With one in 10 Australians around the country in a hospital bed or an aged care bed lucky enough to be cared for by a Catholic service – a service inspired by the story of the Good Samaritan – they know they are in safe hands medically, but also in compassionate hands.
I have been fortunate enough to see that first hand in the care that the Little Sisters of the Poor are giving to my father as his health necessitated his entry into residential aged care. The provision of aged care in the Church can be something of an abstract concept for so many of us; this experience of seeing the loving care that Catholic services offer has made it very real for me.
For many older people, though, moving into a residential aged facility – despite needing some assistance – is not an option they are ready to take. Across Australia, Catholic services are responding to the wishes of our clients and providing health care and other forms of care in their own homes.
Recent legislation passed by the previous Government will see a dramatic increase in the number of people who are able to take advantage of the physical and psychological benefits of staying in their own home without forgoing the important care they need. It was a model Pope Benedict himself promoted last year, calling on families and society as a whole to help older people continue to live at home. Home care packages developed by our Catholic health services prolong an elderly person’s ability to live at home by providing assistance in showering and general hygiene, house cleaning, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
Catholic agencies are also mindful of the importance of helping older people, even those who are unwell, live as full a life as is possible. There are many innovative programs around the country, including a program that is considered a national leader.
Southern Cross Care Victoria’s Imagine Fund has allowed staff working with older people to recognise opportunities to give residents a positive experience – reuniting with families, a trip to the theatre or a football game, computer training – and help them retain meaning in their lives. This is a particularly important for residents in the service who are isolated from their family or do not have the financial means to enjoy such activities. Age and poor health don’t stifle people’s interest, their hopes and their aspirations, and physical health can benefit from the emotional advantages of engaging in the sorts of activities people have loved all their lives.
The Church in Australia is also playing a role in shaping the future of care of older people through our Catholic universities, with tomorrow’s nurses being trained and formed at Australian Catholic University, and Colleges of Medicine and Nursing at the University of Notre Dame, Australia preparing health professionals for the demands of health care in the context of an ageing population.
But there are also more organic training methods taking place. One of our Catholic aged care services, which like so many others, has an increasingly culturally diverse workforce, has seen the opportunity for their staff to share their experience and teach some skills to people in their home countries when they travel back for family or cultural events. They return to their homeland with gifts from Australia, but also with expertise that can benefit those working in aged care.
Our universities are also collaborating with Catholic Health Australia to assist in the ongoing development of nurses working in health and aged care, and in the creation of partnerships with Catholic services, to sharpen the focus on how the demographic changes taking place in the West are creating a high demand for aged care and caring for the health of older Australians. Professor McInerny’s work as the first Chair in Aged Care – a joint initiative of Mercy Health and Australian Catholic University – is one example of the priority that is rightly being given to this area of work.
With Australia’s ageing population set to double over the next 40 years, Professor McInerny will drive innovation, provide leadership and establish a long-term vision for the way Australia cares for older people. She will do so by working with 20 other organisations all working towards the same goal of better, more focussed care for older people who need such health and aged care.
While our universities are obviously great places for research into care for older people, just a couple of months ago, at the Catholic Health Australia national conference, we were able to recognise the ground-breaking research of St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne in the area of the effect of anaesthesia and surgery on older patients living with memory loss. Obviously much has already been said at this conference about the important work being done to help people living dementia and related conditions, but the soaring rates of memory-related conditions mean that much effort must be put into this work. In Australia, dementia has now been listed as a national health priority.
Again quoting Pope Benedict, “One who makes room for the elderly, makes room for life. One who welcomes the elderly welcomes life.” In a world that can sometimes devalue or even disrespect the place of older people, the Church must continue to provide the example of what it means to make room for the elderly, to welcome them and to welcome life.