“Whose values is your question about?”
What does this mean for my research? Should I examine what my own values are? Is the value of old age and dying unavailable to me until I am old and dying myself?
I am calling Kristien Hendrickx, priest in a nursing home. Because I’ve known her for a while, she dares to point out a blind spot in my question.
If you want to know the values of the elderly and the dying, you must first listen to them.
The first thing we learn as pastors is not to put words in our mouths. It is only meaningful and valuable if they also experience it that way. Often they won’t even say it literally. What makes sense to you while you are not old and dying need not be to them and vice versa.
Yes, Kristien, we all die anyway I hear myself say.
But she has a point, which is expressed very clearly Paul Destrooper:
In philosophical counseling, it is not appropriate to offer a perspective that is not receptive, understandable, or comprehensible to the person.
If the person is before the abyss of existence, this is also his place. It is the place where the meeting with the ideological adviser takes place. These are not expected to leave that place, but precisely to recognize that place and accept it in all its reality as the place where they are.
It is clear that the conversation falters if one sees one’s life experience replaced by the tile wisdom of the other.
Listening to the elderly and dying
So I listen to the elderly and the dying. I posed the question to my parents and colleagues’ parents, to older friends and readers of my pieces. I listen to anecdotes from priests who walk daily with the elderly and dying.
Listening to the elderly and dying is always worthwhile. In itself. We just need to do more of that.
But does this multitude of voices also make me want to stand at the length of my old age and death? Well, no, not really, it turns out to be about something else after all.
The limitations and fears of culture are often the limitations and fears of people. One hopes to enjoy autonomy for as long as possible, fears its loss, and hopes to cope with the farewell in a beautiful way. That is of course true. Nothing wrong with that.
But is there also a perspective on something else?
Perspective is also a collective responsibility
According to Dr. Carlo Leget, professor of care ethics and palliative care, the values of the elderly cannot be reduced to a purely individual problem. In an article for the medical newspaper Medisch Contact, he and a few colleagues put it this way:
It is a matter of opinion, and by definition it is never individual.
People can only experience meaning individually against the background of a common cultural horizon. This includes views on the value of old age, the meaning of illness, death and suffering, the value of mutual care of generations, etc. Together we create such horizons of meaning in a culture. When we talk about the issue of individual meaning, we must therefore always look at how that experience of meaning is rooted in society.
When our values are questioned by the limitations of life, we not only have to rediscover our own values, but we also look for new ones. That’s what the American surgeon says Atul Gawande in Being mortal: medicine and what ultimately matters (Bible – Globe):
When greater emphasis is placed on the fragility of life, the goals and motives that people have in everyday life change.
The cultural horizon is the reservoir of possibilities from which we then draw.
Our cultural horizon offers too little view
If we ask carers and experts about exactly which new goals and motives are possible in the late phase of life, we notice a great reluctance. Yes, a troubled impotence even.
A medical manager of geriatrics and palliative care admits that she finds it very difficult to answer my questions. Nor can she say much about it from the scientific literature.
Six medical experts write in an article about life fatigue in the elderly for the Journal of Medicine:
It is important to recognize that the identification of spiritual needs and spiritual care of the elderly is still unexplored territory and that much further research is needed into good models of communication, screening and assessment of spiritual needs and development of possible effective interventions.
Apparently relatives are not well equipped to let me taste new life values. They may also be hampered by therapeutic neutrality or scientific objectivity.