By Patrick Twomey
We see the placards in front of hospitals and clinics: HEROES WORK HERE!
The doctors, nurses, and all medical professionals on the frontline of treating COVID-19 patients deserve our praise and appreciation. They work long and grueling hours at considerable personal risk for the common good. God be with them and keep them. The same signage has appeared in front of assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and group homes, where most employees are caregivers.
My wife and I know these people. For the last thirty-four years, caregivers have been an essential part of our lives, first as guests in our home who helped care for our older daughter Allison, and then as employees in the various group homes she has lived in since moving out at age nineteen. We see her nearly every day, and, during every visit, we have some interaction with her caregivers. We treat them with the utmost respect, listen to what they have to say, thank them often, and intervene in our daughter’s care or offer suggestions only when we feel it is necessary and in Allison’s best interest. These days, they are considered essential workers. Do we value them?
I will, in due course, answer the question by measuring their compensation and working conditions against the standard of Matthew chapter 25 and a portion of a sermon by St. John Chrysostom, illustrating a theme he often expressed. Additionally, I will tease out the meaning of an ambiguous verse, Psalm 41:3, as a way of showing the link between the Incarnation and the care of human bodies. For now, I appeal to a modern poem by Nancy Henry, which I will quote in its entirety.
People Who Take Care
People who take care of people
get paid less than anybody
people who take care of people
are not worth much
except to the people who are
sick, old, helpless, and poor
people who take care of people
are not important to most other people
are not respected by many other people
come and go without much fuss
unless they don’t show up
people who make more money
tell them what to do
never get shit on their hands
never wipe vomit or wipe tears
don’t stand in danger of
having plates thrown at them
sharing every cold
they cannot tell at home
people who take care of people
have a secret
that sees them through the double shift
that moves them from room to room
that keeps them on the floor
sometimes they fill a hollow
no one else can fill
sometimes through the shit
and blood and tears
they go to a beautiful place, somewhere
those clean important people
have never seen.
Of course, it does not have to be this way. Caregivers could be valued, respected, and adequately compensated, though it would take a complete reassessment of communal and national values to do so. Part of the problem may be that we do not esteem, as we should, the people for whom they care. The elderly, very frail, and the disabled do not measure up in a world fixated on youth, beauty, and accomplishment.
“In as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). Meal preparation, household chores, administering medication, tending to personal cares, providing meaningful activities, oversight, redirection, behavior management, encouragement, emotional support, transportation, operating lifts for safe transfers from bed to chair, or chair to shower. Caregivers are tending to the Body of Christ.
After the decision to close churches in response to the present pandemic, online discussions immediately arose about ways to imitate or approximate the experience of Holy Communion. Drive-by Communion, Spiritual Communion, Virtual Communion, and Ocular Veneration were all mentioned, although none of these practices are familiar to the average churchgoer. We lost, I believe, a moment to emphasize and rediscover ourselves as the real presence of the Body of Christ, especially in the least of these.
Now, consider St. John Chrysostom as he seamlessly moves from a reflection on the Eucharist and what today we call caregiving. “Let us also then touch the hem of his garment, or rather, if we are willing, we may have him entirely. For, indeed, his Body is set before us now, not his garment only, but even his Body, not for us to touch only, but also to eat, and be filled.” Although emphasizing the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and not, by any means, prohibiting the use of elegant liturgical appointments, he is clear about where the Body of Christ is especially to be sought and found. “Would you honor Christ’s Body? Neglect him not when naked; do not, while you honor him here with silken garments, neglect him perishing without of cold and nakedness. For he that said, ‘This is my body,’ and by his word confirmed the fact, also said, ‘You saw me hungry, and fed me not,’ and, ‘Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me’ Let us learn therefore to be strict in life, and to honor Christ as he himself desires (Sermon 50 on Matthew’s Gospel).
Finally, as a particularly striking example of the incarnation and its implication for caregiving, Ps. 41:3 deserves consideration. The New Revised Standard Version reads, “The Lord sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities.” A footnote points out that the Hebrew of the second half of the verse is uncertain while acknowledging an alternative translation, “you change all his bed.” The 1928 Prayer Book follows this alternative reading, “make thou all his bed in his sickness.” Perhaps I would never have noticed this except for my personal experience with my daughter and my devotion to the Vulgate Bible – the fourth-century Latin translation. The Vulgate says, “You have changed all his bedsheets in his infirmity” (Universam stratum eius versasti in infirmitate eius; iuxat LLX). Who is like the Lord our God, who changes the bedsheets of the afflicted?
People who take care of other people are taking care of Christ. People who take care of other people are themselves another incarnation of Christ. And yet these caregivers do not make a living wage; many do not have adequate medical insurance; many are trapped in poverty to qualify for public assistance; many have little or no job security. Now, they are essential; they are heroes.
Likely, when the present crisis is over, we will forget caregivers. The less likely option is the one I embrace, a whole new assessment of what these people do and how they might be supported.
Tomorrow, I will go to my daughter’s home. During this lockdown, I will visit with her through a window using a two-way monitor. We will dance to Whitney Houston, K.D. Lang, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, and, without fail, Roy Orbison. We will sing songs and clap our hands. We will talk. At the end of our visit, I will ask her to be good for her caregivers. Occasionally, I ask her an open-ended question. “How do you feel about your caregivers?” She always says, “They love me.”
Love is everything, but money, medical insurance, and job security matter. How might we care for caregivers? It is a question for local communities, states, and the federal government. Who are we as a people, and what do we value?
Fr. Patrick Twomey is a retired priest of the Diocese of Fond du Lac. He does occasional supply work and is a frequent contributor to The Living Church.