Sickness and Health and the Duty of Care

It is no accident that St Benedict puts his chapter On Sick Brethren between the one On the Kitchen Servers for the Week and that On the Old and Very Young. The link between all three is compassion. A good meal, as I attempted to describe it yesterday, builds up physically and spiritually. It is an essential part of maintaining health, but it must be prepared and served with love if it is to have real value. When we are sick, we need more than good food to sustain us (although, as Benedict makes clear, that is still important), while the vulnerability of both young and old makes special demands on others. The strong must show sympathy with the weaker brethren and treat them with kindness — a kindness that can make a nonsense of schedules and routines because it puts the needs of the person first (see RB 35, 36 and 37 passim).

A report, published today, asserts that a fifth of NHS patients are not always treated with respect and dignity (see here for the BBC summary), and it is those over 80 who suffer worst. That is a troubling statistic which, translated into personal terms, is more troubling still. It suggests that when we are at our frailest, when our need for compassion is greatest, we shall not receive it. How can we call ourselves civilized if we treat the sick and the vulnerable as less than human, disposable even?

When I was 17 or 18, I used to do voluntary work on the geriatric ward of one of our local hospitals. I spent most of my time trying to coax people to eat by sitting alongside and holding a spoon to their mouths and wiping their bottoms when they had finished. I don’t think I bothered my head with ideas of respect and dignity. I simply saw my grandmother or grandfather in those I was trying to help. My bumbling efforts were often very bumbling indeed, but I remember one of the nurses remarking that the important thing was that young people came and showed that they cared. It isn’t just young people who need to show that they care, or NHS staff, or any other identifiable group. It is ALL of us, without exception. We don’t discharge our duty of care by criticizing others. We do so by showing compassion ourselves.


4 thoughts on “Sickness and Health and the Duty of Care”

  1. Well said. We can sometimes be fearful of assisting people, our bumbling attempts perhaps in danger of being misconstrued – but it’s a very human (as well as Holy) thing to be compassionate and looking out for others, the elderly, the vulnerable, those in need in any way not as fortunate as ourselves. Perhaps the old saying ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I” might be a useful tool in our armory of helpfulness?

  2. I had a similar experience as you, Sr Catherine. In my teenage years I worked as a volunteer at a hospital for the mentally and physically handicapped. It was the most rewarding things I have ever done and changed me as a person.

  3. With my 86 year old mother in hospital waiting for an operation tomorrow that should have been yesterday but was cancelled due to an emergency surgery all that you write resonates

  4. Thank you for writing this. It encourages all to visit and help out anyone – not just family – who might be hospitalized or in another care facility. I used to work as a hospital social worker with oncology patients. Visitors were common early on, when it seemed there was something to do. As people become less energetic and able to converse, and as the visitors are less sure of what to say, they came less often. A bumbling visit is better than an absence, hands down.

Comments are closed.