In January 2009 Karen Tangen, who teaches business at Bethel University, and I were able to take 20 Bethel students to India to study globalization. One of our visits was with the Sisters of Charity Home for the Aged in Chennai. India has the second largest population of older adults in the world (7 percent of the population of over 1 billion people), after China. With few older persons covered by any kind of pension or social security system, older adults rely on traditional patterns of family care to help them when they face the difficulties associated with aging. Yet, issues of globalization and urbanization have been undercutting these forms of help as the all too familiar factors of fewer care givers due to more women in the workplace, smaller families, high mobility, and ever-rising demands of consumerism are challenging the abilities of families to provide support for their older members.
The Sisters of Charity provide solace for around 90 older adults who have nowhere else to go and no one else to whom they can turn. They arrive on the doorsteps of the good Sisters in absolute destitution. The Sisters welcome and accept them, clean their wounds, provide medical help, and invite them into a worshipping community. This is a place of rest, a loving community. As a visitor, I saw that the home offered a place of rest and a loving community that was a sharp contrast to the bustle of cars, bikes, buses, motorcycles, and auto-rickshaws that defines public life in this fast-paced, fast-growing city.
The residents told stories of unbearable suffering and pain, yet they were peaceful and at rest in this place. Young volunteers from local schools and churches, tended to their needs with smiles and with much touch. This is a place of touch and connection. In the courtyard, a statue of Jesus with outstretched arms reflected the home’s vocation. The inscription read, “See, I have no hands. Will you be my hands?” It was true in this place. Hands were outstretched. The rejected were embraced. The abandoned were found.
Ministering to 90 persons in a city of 8 million might seem like a drop of help in a bucket of need. Yet, these good Sisters had claimed the poorest of the poor as neighbors and had chosen to fold them into their worshipping community. While praying in the chapel, I was reminded of this as a person with some form of dementia entered, speaking loudly and somewhat disjointedly. The Sisters acknowledged him with a smile and a show of love that drew him into the time of prayer, reminding me that this was his community and he belonged here.
As I reflect on this, I think about the lack of medical equipment and other resources that I associate with top line care in the United States. The Sisters offered their residents love and support, touch and embrace. Complete acceptance. It reminded me again of things are truly important as we build communities of care for older adults.
By Dr. Harley Schreck, Christianity Today
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