Marge Schaffer is a nursing professor at Bethel University. As a Fulbright Scholar, she studied end of life issues among terminal patients in Norway. Schaffer is the author of Being Present: A Nurse’s Resource for End-of-Life Care. I spoke with Schaffer a couple years ago about how churches can better care for the elderly and create an atmosphere for dying well.
How can the church do better at educating people about the end of life?
I think having parish nurses are good for that, supporting the living of the life of elderly members.
A lot of church growth has been focusing on youth and children. I think that’s the fun thing to do and where the education has been. I think there has been a lack of education for people who work in churches about how to best support the elderly. We aren’t good at valuing the elderly. We don’t revere them. And so what happens when they no longer can make it to church? How many people can’t get to church so they stop going simply because they can’t drive.
Our ministries need to be a lot stronger in terms of supporting the living of the elderly. Then it would support more of a natural death. How can we promote a natural death? Christians should seek a natural death.
The church could foster an attitude of acceptance of death so that when a person nears the end of life they and their family are more willing and able to talk about it.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful, because I think there is this gap between how people are active in church, and then they reach this point where they can’t functiona as they did. And they lose their connection. Maybe they get a pastoral visit or maybe there’s a visiting ministry or maybe if they’re in the hospital they get a visit, but I don’t think there’s that continued support or involvement until the funeral. So there is a huge gap here.
Do we talk about these issues? Do we deal with them enough?
No. That’s easy. When I was in Norway, I had no trouble talking to people about their responses and their ethical problems. But it’s very difficult here to talk about it. People always want to say, “Oh, you’re not going to die,” or “That’s not going to happen to you.”
There is a denial of the fact that there’s going to be a transition in life. There are some people who can talk about it well, but generally even for Christians who know they’re going to go be with God, even they have difficulty talking about it. So no, I don’t think we do it well. We’re starting to see more programs in churches to help people talk about it. So that’s beginning.