“Is it odd to hope to be poor in my older years?” The thought raced through my mind on a recent day of service with the Little Sisters of the Poor at their Holy Family Home in West Philadelphia.
I had arrived there the morning of March 23, the day the sisters were to challenge the HHS mandate at the Supreme Court. Holy Family Home sat like an oasis in a run down neighborhood.
The home was welcoming, immaculately clean, bright and cheerful — and that was just the building. Our group of volunteers had yet to witness what would take place in the hallways.
The atmosphere was filled with the beautiful sounds of laughter, recognition of each individual, their likes and dislikes, inside jokes, and a genuine formation of family. These elderly poor came into the home with nothing and gained everything: family, dignity and love.
The volunteers and I saw this loving attention in action throughout our service day. Each sister knows each resident. This knowing goes beyond the fundamentals — Jim needs his meds at a specific time, Kate likes milk on her Jell-o, Louis will come five minutes late for dinner, John will always have pasta with no sauce and William likes a beer with his Monday night football game.
I knew firsthand that this kind of understanding was very special. A few years prior, I journeyed along a familiar road for many: the decision making process for an aging parent.
When it came time to choose an end-of-life residence for my mom, I was astonished at the lack of suitability. If we found a nursing home that was state of the art, it lacked an inherent warmth in its workers. If we identified a home with welcoming and warm workers, its facilities were lackluster.
Deciding upon the latter option, we took to readying my mom’s room with pictures and linens from her home. The rotating staff were all kind and caring but never fully grew to know my mom. They repeatedly confused her with another woman down the hall.
Most often, we needed to remind the staff of my mom’s specific needs. As a family, we made a decision for one of the four siblings to be at the home at all times, making sure that my mom’s specific needs were addressed.
During those family visits, a deep heartache came to me for those residents that I didn’t know. The lovely lady who was wheeled into the dining room to eat alone and the shell of a man who sat in the recreational room alone for hours. All of these residents were kept safe and their fundamental needs were met but a genuine connection to their personhood was missing from their caregivers.
After one visit with my mom, I passed the room of a man named Jack at 10 p.m. His door was open and the TV played as he lay alone in his room. Returning the next morning at 8 a.m., I passed Jack’s room again. The door was open, the room was empty, sterilized and awaiting a new resident. Jack passed away alone.
I never want to die alone. Never.
Our day of service at the Little Sisters’ home was a complete contrast from the visits to my mom’s home, and filled with more laughs than I had in a while, I thought, “This is where I want to be at the end.” Not being shy, I asked Sister Paula the question: “How do I get in here?”
Sadly, it’s not a realistic possibility for me based on our tax bracket. And this is when I wished to be poor in my elderly years.
I am grateful for the recent Supreme Court ruling that will allow the Little Sisters of the Poor to continue to serve without paying taxes or penalties. I hope that the lower courts will work out a long-term solution to ensure that the sisters and others like them will always be able to serve those most in need without having to violate their consciences.
After all, if not them, who? No matter your religious beliefs, your political beliefs, or your end-of-life beliefs, we should all support the poor of our nation. And the Little Sisters of the Poor do it best.
Megan Schrieber is a member of St. Norbert Parish in Paoli.