Learning to Grow Old With Life

Interview with the Secretary Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, Bishop Jose Luis Redrado

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«I am a happy and busy retired person,» said Bishop Jose Luis Redrado. «I have before me a new life, full of experiences which I hope to convert into reality, because there are no age limits to grow, to learn and to give: that is why I want to be a professor of life and also end my last chapter and complete what is not concluded.»

With these words Bishop Redrado said farewell on July 14, 2011, when he retired after 25 years of service as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry in the Vatican.

But these past few days, Bishop Redrado has been back in Rome, taking part in the 28th International Congress on “The Church at the Service of the Elderly Sick Person: The Care of Persons Affected by Neurodegenerative Pathologies.”

ZENIT interviewed the prelate who spoke about the importance of health care ministry, the role of the family in helping the elderly sick, and the challenges that the Church faces in this service to society.

* * *

ZENIT: What are the most important points to be addressed in this congress?

Bishop Redrado: It is very important to see how the Church gives much attention to this phase of “the end of life,” an important stage. The Letter that Pope John Paul II addressed to the elderly is something that touches the heart and life because it is not addressed by a young person to the elderly, but by an elderly person to the elderly. The text is important where it highlights the joyful sense of hope, of the values that are really no longer being practiced as in previous years. Of course, Pope Pius XII also spoke about the end of life and its context, and he also had important addresses that must be reflected on further.

In a word, the Church has always paid particular attention, and recently in relation to the pastoral care of sick persons, concretely, to the elderly who are sick. They are two different dimensions; old age isn’t a sickness. Just like a 40 or 30-year-old can be sick, so can an elderly person be sick. And sickness is something that weighs on society, on the family and also on the economy.

ZENIT: And in regard to Alzheimer’s specifically, which is one of the central topics of the congress, is there enough formation and awareness in society on how to treat and care for this sickness?

Bishop Redrado: There is a lack of knowledge, also medical knowledge; these are new sicknesses which need much research. In this regard, during his intervention, Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau gave a wonderful description of these types of sicknesses. And he concluded with something ideal: the family. How good it would be if the family was able to care for the sick person. But as the family is, today, broken it is very difficult. But the present-day family, so dispersed, so without elements, it would be difficult for it to look after a sick person in a situation in which you have to do everything. And this would be ideal, but the reality is another.

ZENIT: Within the Church, in the Religious Communities, is there the same difficulty in looking after the sick. How can this situation be addressed?

Bishop Redrado: There is a tendency that is growing within Religious Communities which are like a family; there are members that are growing older, and the Communities are increasingly smaller. What is being done, for instance, by us of the Order of Saint John of God in Spain, is to bring together the oldest of the Communities of the whole Province in one single Community, for better care. Where I live in Saragossa, there is the hospital of Saint John of God and, adjoining the hospital, is the residence of the Brothers, divided in two groups: those who need care and the fit. And a physical place is set up for their life, where they share time, engage in activities and are taken care of from a medical point of view. We carry out our religious life in common; it is very important that they feel they are with the others. In the big celebrations and events we also do something in common and celebrate together.

ZENIT: Is making the elderly feel as a part of society another of the challenges to keep in mind when caring for them?

Bishop Redrado: A grandfather cannot be isolated. He must be visited; if he is in a residence, every now and then they should come and take him to eat at home.  I think the dynamics of the residences for the elderly must be of resurrection; they must be in contact with life; they must be in contact with others. We cannot have “warehouses of the elderly.” There must be schedules, for gymnastics, singing, the reading of the newspaper, conversation.

Celebrations, centered on care at the end of life, must be joyful, full of memories. In our Order in particular, hospitality is no longer going to the infirmary to be with the sick. Hospitality must mean a smile. To say thank you. It is very important to “keep them alive.”

ZENIT: Pope Francis has warned many times regarding a “throwaway culture” in reference to old age. Do you think the Pope’s words will help to bring about a change?

Bishop Redrado: The Pope has a language that isn’t academic, as we ecclesiastics often tend to have, using words that people don’t understand. This Pope is teaching us to use a pastoral language. Very significant is what he said to the almoner: I don’t want you behind me in the celebrations; I want you on the streets taking care of the poor on behalf of the Pope. This is language that we all understand. The Pope’s way of speaking is understood and it is easier to be accepted. On this topic of the sick, what the Pope says is going to penetrate, including in those who are estranged from the Church or the faith –to speak as Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus.

ZENIT: Care of the elderly is something that sooner or later touches everyone. How can health care ministry involve the whole community?

Bishop Redrado: It is important that the Church discover new ways of knowing how to be. As I was saying earlier about the group that we have in our Community, it is a special group that has to teach us to grow old healthily and with life. To know how they live and, for me, not to have to be “obliged” to take care of those elderly sick, I propose that every so often two or three Brothers go to spend time with that group, helping and seeing how companions with whom they have lived, are now in that situation. We now have a Brother who is going to be 100 years old and we are injecting enthusiasm in him and saying verbally: courage! This must be celebrated!

ZENIT: And how does the family of the sick person participate?

Bishop Redrado: It is necessary to involve the family. And we see the sick’s person’s family involved every day in the hospital. There are families that are a blessing, and other situation that are very complicated, because if it is a broken family, it is where a social worker has much work. Because if the family is broken, where will the sick person end up?

There is a new phenomenon that we have been experiencing in recent times and are now studying. Elderly people come to the hospital for a specific situation and when we discharge them, they no longer go to a residence but home. Here we see the effects of the economic crisis. Many families can no longer pay for the residences, and they must take the grandfather home and the whole family lives with his pension, which probably has several members unemployed. This is an important aspect to keep in mind.

With this I wish to say that in a hospital we see the X-ray of society.

ZENIT: In this throwaway society, how can one speak of the dignity of life up to the last moment? How is hope found in the hospital, in contact with sickness and death?

Bishop Redrado: We are in a society that if you do not produce “you’re not valid.” We must nourish lives, valid until the end, lives that say farewell to life. The youth and the adult must
see in those who are older a positive mirror. I am greatly helped when I see joyful and happy elderly people. To die full of life is something that we must achieve and here is a challenge for the Church. And this is difficult because, in a society where the fear of death has been implanted, religious values have been crushed. We want to solve everything with the pharmacy. The Pope himself recommended mercy to us the other day, the spiritual medicine.

In our hospital, for instance, on Mondays we offer a Mass for the deceased of the week and we invite the families. When I celebrate this Mass, I like to emphasize the idea of spiritual medicine, to heal the wound that death leaves, a wound that must be healed, and it must be done well so that it won’t fester. And to heal, we have prayer and the faith.

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Rocío Lancho García

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