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Old Age is a Humiliation

So, I’ve just made it home, as the sun rises, from a night spent with my mother and father at a hospital emergency room. My dad, as it turns out, has pneumonia. It took nine hours of waiting before they had a room for him. My mom is sleeping there with him now, and I’m going to go relieve her later in the day. He’s going to be okay, thank God, but he’s pretty wiped out.

He was in a part of the ER reserved for seniors. You can learn a lot about what it’s like to be old and sick from spending nine hours in the senior ER, pacing around, waiting for a room to open up for your father. Well, I only learned two lessons, but I learned it from watching the same thing play out around me.

First, old age is a humiliation, straight up. Because I’m bone-tired, I’ll let this example stand for several I observed tonight. I saw an old man crap his pants because he was shuffling to the bathroom and couldn’t move fast enough. Later, I could hear a nurse in the patient’s holding room sweetly cleaning him up when he made it back, respecting his dignity. I thought about that old man, somebody’s grandfather, most likely, maybe a war veteran, reduced to this.

Second, whatever we pay nurses, it’s not enough. The nurse that cleaned that old man up was also my father’s nurse. She and the other nurses who attended him tonight could not possibly have been kinder and more tender to him. I felt so bad for my dad, in his badly weakened state, being poked and prodded and catheterized and all kinds of things. I know what a proud man he is, and how it must have been tearing him up to be reduced to this state of helplessness by his advanced age (he’s 80) and the pneumonia. There’s no way to compensate for that kind of thing, but the nurses who took care of him tonight (and the doctors too) made a situation that was very difficult for him, both physically and psychologically, in terms of his dignity, as bearable as it could have been.

Listening to and watching the elderly patients on the ward, I knew that this was going to be my fate one day, and the thought of it makes me afraid — afraid not of dying, but of wasting away, and of being humiliated by my body. I don’t want a nurse to have to wipe my butt. Nobody does. But it happens every day. I saw a nurse walking down the hall with an adult diaper in her hand, headed into someone’s room. The thought that this will be my fate one day is hateful to me. I had better get over it. This is going to be an immense spiritual challenge, aging with dignity when your body does nothing but mock you and spite you.

I’m pro-life, from conception till natural death, but it’s important to face squarely what that conviction entails.

UPDATE: Good news from the hospital. After further testing, the doctors reversed their pneumonia diagnosis, and now don’t know what sparked the high fever, chills, and weakness. But he’s much better today, and will probably be released tomorrow. Thank you all for your prayers and good wishes.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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