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.

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