SASKATOON — Participants in a diocesan Justice and Outreach Year explored the issue of health and elder care during their monthly gathering in February, centred on a visit to Samaritan Place, a Catholic long-term care facility in Saskatoon’s Stonebridge neighbourhood.
The visit to Samaritan Place brought forth a range of insights, challenges and reactions from the 15 program participants, reports Kate O’Gorman, co-ordinator of the Justice and Outreach Year (JOY) of Formation program.
“One of the principals and strengths of the JOY program is that we, as a community of people with a deep desire to be of service, avail ourselves to the possibility of being stretched,” she says, noting that participants often have different experiences when exploring the various social justice themes that are part of the 10-month diocesan program.
“Some issues sit more comfortably for one person, while that same topic may prove to be a challenge for someone else. There is a fluidity to this tension; it rises and falls for each of us on any given weekend and to varying degrees,” O’Gorman describes. “As a lay community committed to being formed as servant leaders, we support and carry one another through these growing pains.”
Some participants were familiar with long-term care facilities such as Samaritan Place, whether through a JOY community placement (a feature of the formation program) or other volunteer experiences, or because they have personally journeyed with a loved one through long-term care. “Some of us were quite comfortable working and visiting with people who wrestle with dementia, limited mobility and declining health. Others felt the tension of being confronted with infirmity and with what may be considered a loss of control,” notes O’Gorman.
“It was in this very human response of conflicting emotions that we were greeted by members of Samaritan’s leadership team and invited to enter an initial process of prayer and reflection,” she says.
“We were directed through an exploration of the parable of the Good Samaritan in a way that oriented our minds and spirits to consider who our neighbour might be and how we might be called to respond to need with compassion.”
This is the philosophy and vision that Samaritan Place operates from — that each resident is an individual of value and dignity, worthy of a home where they can receive compassionate assistance and friendship in maintaining a full and abundant life, adds O’Gorman. “As participants of the JOY program, as followers of Christ, and as members of this humanity, we explored how we are called to participate in that offering of friendship.”
JOY participants were invited to meet and sit with residents of Samaritan Place. “We met people who were full of early morning energy and were ready for a day of activity. We sat with others who were slowly nursing a cup of coffee and fighting the urge to fall back asleep — clearly not morning people,” describes O’Gorman.
“We had lively conversations with people who were curious about who we were and we sat with those who preferred to be in silence. Some residents enjoyed a good laugh with us while others were having a difficult morning and preferred not to entertain company that day. We encountered people who were struggling with confusion and anxiety and we witnessed the tenderness of staff who patiently answered questions and gently tried to assuage any fear. We discovered what is was like to extend friendship to someone who perhaps couldn’t reciprocate in any obvious way and we were invited to search for the beauty and meaning in simply being present without expectation or validation.”
The temptation of any service-focused initiative is to busy ourselves with the work of “doing,” notes O’Gorman. “We tend to ‘default’ into helping others by tidying things up, organizing schedules, performing tasks that might otherwise go undone — and while this is certainly a necessary aspect of service to some degree, the more challenging and often the most needed element is to simply be present,” she says.
“When we refrain from performing a function we open ourselves to real encounter without distraction. This is often an occasion for tension and discomfort because it asks us to meet someone’s fragility with our own vulnerability and we begin to discover how we are all frail. Yet it is precisely within this space of mutual self-giving that both parties begin to participate in the transformative power of Jesus’ healing ministry. Service is both given and received.”
A recognition that authentic service requires an acknowledgment of one’s own limitations is unfolding as participants continue to journey through the JOY program, says O’Gorman.
“It is much more comfortable to ignore the elderly and infirm because it permits us to ignore our own fragility — our own temporality. To be of service is to set aside our own defensive sense of separateness and open ourselves to the healing gift of friendship. We are being stretched, indeed,” she says. “And yet, we carry and support one another through this ongoing process of outreach growth and justice formation.”