Catholic Sentinel/Ed Langlois
Mary Robertson listens to a homily in the Mary’s Woods chapel.
Catholic Sentinel/Ed Langlois
Mary Robertson listens to a homily in the Mary’s Woods chapel.
This is the first in a series on senior living for 2015.

The man was old, sick and afraid to die.

Mary George-Whittle, who directs pastoral care at Mary’s Woods, a retirement community sponsored by the Sisters of the Holy Names near Lake Oswego, asked him, “Do you trust God with your life?”

He said yes. Then she asked, “Do you trust God with your death?” That eased the fear. He relaxed, then said maybe he could be alright with that, and surrendered his anxiety to God.

Older Catholics face faith experiences that can be difficult, but that reach deep spiritual territory. Loss, loneliness, disability and the specter of death tend to throw the elder into God’s presence.

“It’s not a lack of faith that people experience. Your faith in God is strengthened,” says George-Whittle. “But for some, losing meaning and purpose in life and not being able to do what they once can bring on spiritual despair.”

George-Whittle also sees many older people in anguish because they feel ready to die and return to God, but their bodies keep going, even if sick.   

Sr. Josephine Pelster, a Sister of St. Mary of Oregon, directs pastoral care at Maryville in Beaverton. She says the experience of losing loved ones mixes inevitably with the dread of one’s own death.

“It’s a feeling of instability,” Sister Josephine says. “They are not able to sort it out and cannot come to peace with it.”

Older people also are concerned with their worthiness, “whether they are right with God,” says Sister Josephine.

Pastoral care leaders try to prepare elder residents for the spiritual challenges.  

Mary’s Woods offers Mass each day in the historic chapel in the Holy Names motherhouse. On one recent day, Holy Cross Father Richard Berg gave a homily catered to their time of life. He asked them to consider their physicality and to give thanks, knowing that their bodies are linked to all that went before and all that will go before.  

Mary’s Woods also hosts a weekly reflection group that examines topics like loss and fear in life’s last years.

George-Whittle witness what she calls “a wonderful spiritual hunger.” Elders want to understand what others believe and why.

“It’s just shifting, seeing God from a wider perspective and seeing what comes out of the loss. At their age, people are finding incredible inner strength they never knew they had.”

At Maryville, Sister Josephine has seen a simple gesture help soothe spiritual angst. Father John Broulliard, a retired priest who lives nearby, visits Maryville regularly and blesses residents one by one, reminding them of God’s steadfast love and boundless forgiveness.

“That touches so many people,” Sister Josephine says. “People will remember and say, ‘The priest blessed me and prays for me.’ That simple encounter offers peace.”

Maryville has a daily morning Mass, including a rosary 30 minutes before. For those who can’t make it to the chapel, visitors bring Communion. The Eucharist brings all kinds of healing, Sister Josephine says.

Once per week, Maryville residents gather for a spiritual meeting that includes conversation and usually a film with a religious theme.  

Even if there is not a resident priest, Catholic-affiliated retirement centers offer regular worship. At Assumption Village in North Portland, located on the grounds of the former Assumption Parish, there is Mass most mornings, with local pastors presiding.

Dana McBrien, spiritual care coordinator at Providence Benedictine Nursing Center in Mount Angel, says everyone goes through aging and spiritual trials differently and that it’s a natural, bearable process. She thinks “despair” is too strong a word for it.

“I see people asking ‘What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What has my life meant and what does it mean now?’” McBrien says.

When illness hits, elders who have for their whole adult lives been providers and caretakers must now try to learn to receive. That’s harder than it sounds.

One resident at Benedictine Nursing Center was able to turn her struggles into a “rich experience,” McBrien explains. She used her trials as a basis for deep prayer at daily Mass and rosary.

“It’s a process of searching for new sense, new meaning,” McBrien says.