Finding peace, love at the bedsides of the ill and dying

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Sister Amy Kaiser visits with resident Jack Wolfe at the Little Sisters of the Poor St. Joseph’s Home for the Elderly in Palatine on Jan. 11, 2019. Jack and his wife, Ellarita, who lives across the hall, have been married for over 60 years. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

There is peace to be found at the bedsides of the dying.

There is also love.

Little Sister of the Poor Margaret Hogarty, superior of the community that operates St. Joseph Home for the Elderly in Palatine, said that when the residents reach a point where they are receiving only palliative care, the sisters and staff make sure to spend time in their rooms.

But they aren’t the only ones. Volunteers visit, and family members are welcome to stay, and even to take their meals with the other residents. And they often are joined by other residents of the home as well.

“People don’t come here to die,” she said. “They come here to live, and they make friends. And then when they are dying, their friends often want to visit them.”

In his message for the World Day for the Sick, celebrated Feb. 11, Pope Francis pointed out the need to remember that those who are sick and dying are still human beings with dignity.

“Caring for the sick requires professionalism, tenderness, straightforward and simple gestures freely given, like a caress that makes others feel loved,” the pope wrote. “Life is a gift from God. St. Paul asks: ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (1 Cor 4:7). Precisely because it is a gift, human life cannot be reduced to a personal possession or private property, especially in the light of medical and biotechnological advances that could tempt us to manipulate the ‘tree of life.’”

Many residents at St. Joseph live there for 10 years or more. The only qualification to be admitted to the home is that residents be elderly and low-income; most are Catholic, Sister Margaret said, but not all are.

That ministry of presence is a key part of the spiritual care that is integral to the care of the seriously ill and dying, Sister Margaret said.

The sisters also pray for and with their patients, and ask them if they have things they want to do in the time they have left.

“Sometimes they need to make peace with a family member,” Sister Margaret said. “We all lead complicated lives, and maybe there is someone they need to forgive, or someone they need to ask for forgiveness.”

In those cases, Sister Margaret said, the sisters do what they can to help.

Rose Pastrana, palliative care chaplain at Amita Alexian Brothers Hospital in Elk Grove Village, said her job is to meet patients where they are and offer them whatever support she can.

By definition, palliative care includes physical, emotional and spiritual care of people who are seriously ill or dying, she said.

“It’s an interdisciplinary approach,” Pastrana said. “There’s the nurses, doctors, social workers and the chaplain. When someone is really going through a serious illness, they’re so vulnerable. My job is to go in there and meet the human being and see where they are on their journey.”

Many patients come from different religious backgrounds, she said, and they are sometimes surprised that the spiritual care provided is not only in the form of Catholic prayers and sacraments.

“Of course, as a Catholic hospital, we have priest-chaplains who can come and anoint somebody, if that’s what they want, or sometimes people request reconciliation,” Pastrana said.

If patients who are not Catholic want to see someone from their own faith traditions, Pastrana facilitates that. She also works with them to understand how their beliefs affect the decisions they make about medical care.

“It’s important for the team to understand that,” she said. “And sometimes people will tell me something they haven’t told anyone else. It can be overwhelming. You might have 10 different doctors in and out.”

But spiritual care often means listening as patients try to figure out where they are in their relationship with God.

“Sometimes they’re scared,” she said. “Or they’re angry with God. Or they think God is angry with them for having fallen away and not come back. They think God is standing there waiting for them with his arms folded, ready to say, ‘You only come back when you need me?’

“I ask, ‘Is that what you really think? That the God who has had his arms open waiting for you doesn’t still have his arms open?’” Pastrana said.

Having a chaplain available to engage patients in conversation about their spiritual life can foster communication between family members and loved ones as well, Pastrana said, recalling a patient who told her — in the presence of his wife — how sorry he was for everything he’d done to hurt his wife.

“Her eyes just filled up with tears,” Pastrana said.

Often, she said, she spends as much time supporting family members and loved ones as she does supporting patients, especially in cases where the patient is not conscious or not coherent.

“People are trying really hard to be strong,” she said. “But I can ask them what their support system is, who they have in place to help them.”


  • health care

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