Over the years one family predicament that I have often been brought into for advice or direction centers on an elderly relative whose health is failing. Sometimes the issue revolves around a parent who is beginning to show signs of dementia but insists that they are “just fine.” It may be very clear to the family that mom or dad should not be living alone. The hard part comes when middle-aged children have to assume the role of parent and insist that mom or dad be placed in a facility where they receive appropriate care. For most of us in that situation, taking charge of a parent not only involves an uncomfortable role reversal, but it feels like such a disrespectful and ungrateful way to behave toward a parent who has sacrificed so much for us. In other words, it involves a lot of guilt. Deep down we already know the priority has to be mom or dad’s health and safety (It would be no different if we were dealing with our own children). We just want to know from the church that taking this step does not automatically make us terrible people in God’s eyes.
A second big area of concern is a family’s obligations in caring for someone who is seriously and perhaps terminally ill. When the media cover this subject, they usually focus on the ethical and moral questions of keeping someone alive—and there are lots of very learned and very technical articles and books on this subject by Catholic medical ethicists. My experience with most families, though, is that their concerns are much more basic: Is it wrong to give up hope? Does our faith compel us to remain upbeat? Do we have to do everything possible to keep our loved one alive?
During the years that I was Director of the National Shrine of St. Peregrine, the cancer saint, I tried to keep up with books and articles that tried to bridge the gap between faith and medicine. How does our faith impact the way we show care for our loved one and what role does faith play in recovering from a life-threatening illness? One of the more valuable books I came across during those years was Dr. Jerome Groopman’s The Anatomy of Hope (2005). In this book, Dr. Groopman, an oncologist, looks back at his own life and experience as a physician, trying to understand “why some people find hope despite facing serious illness while others do not.” While medical school left him “well prepared for the science, I was pitifully unprepared for the soul.” He then invites us along for a journey through four decades of medical practice. Along the way we meet patients who leave him with more questions than answers: a Jewish woman who refuses to hope because she believes her cancer is a punishment from God; a country doctor who tells him to shield patients from the seriousness of their condition , so that they will not lose hope; a Christian woman of strong faith who seems to have no fear of death; a Vietnam veteran young enough and strong enough to defeat his cancer, but who is so worn down emotionally that he refuses all treatments; and a cancer doctor with a form of cancer with a 2% chance of surviving six months who insists on treating the cancer aggressively, and then against all odds survives.
Through all of this he comes to understand that hope is ultimately a choice that we make, a choice that can move us into a place where healing can take place. Consequently we should never discourage a patient from holding on to hope, since it almost never happens that a doctor can predict with absolute certainty the outcome of a procedure or a treatment. However, he says, real hope must be based on facts. The patient should be told the truth about their condition and their odds for survival. Then they can make a choice about whether it is time to let go or hold on to the hope that a physical healing is still possible. While not writing from a Christian or conventionally religious perspective, Dr. Groopman shows intense respect for the role of prayer and faith in treating a critically ill patient.
I find it fascinating that over the last twenty years a number of scientific studies have been done concerning the power of faith and prayer in bringing about recovery from serious illness. It is no longer just members of the Pentecostal movement within Christianity that are touting the power of healing prayer.