A well-planned finish: Aging with Grace workshops give Catholic perspective on spiritual, medical, and legal issues

North Texas Catholic
(Jul 28, 2023) Local

Deacon Daniel Zavala at podium

Deacon Daniel Zavala speaks about the large role his Catholic faith played in his caring for his elderly mother-in-law during the Aging with Grace Conference at Holy Family Parish on July 18, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

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FORT WORTH — Committed to caring for her elderly parents in the best possible way, Mary Dederichs attended the Aging with Grace workshop on July 18 at Holy Family Parish in Fort Worth hoping information gleaned from the presentations would guide her role as a caregiver.

“My mom has dementia, and my stepdad has Alzheimer’s. Dealing with that situation, I want to better understand the medical power of attorney I have and make sure I’m doing everything properly for them,” the St. Andrew parishioner explained.

Hearing how others coped with the behavior of aging parents with kindness and empathy was an added bonus.

“The deacon’s talk about treating everyone with compassion was interesting and thought-provoking,” Dederichs added. “At the end of the day, when I make decisions for loved ones, I want to have peace in my heart and know I’ve done the best for them.”

Sponsored by the diocesan Respect Life Office, Advancement Foundation, and the St. Thomas More Society Fort Worth, the four-hour seminar addressed spiritual, medical, and legal end-of-life issues from a Catholic perspective. Organizers expected 40 people to sign up for the first-time diocesan event.

“We doubled that,” observed Terri Schauf, Respect Life coordinator. “I think that speaks to the need for something like this. It was eye-opening for those of us who planned it.”

The pro-life advocate said the exceptional turnout affirmed the decision to bring the seminar to other parts of the diocese. Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls will host the next Aging with Grace seminar on Thursday, Oct. 26.

“Offering the workshop in Spanish is in the plans, but the date isn’t settled,” Schauf continued. “Holy Trinity also has expressed interest in hosting one in the Azle area in November.”

Empty nesters, retirees, and caregivers of elderly relatives attending the event heard from several lawyers who discussed the importance of preparing documents like wills and advanced directives as well as Church teaching on making ethical medical decisions.

Health law attorney and bioethicist Courtney E. Taylor clarified what the Catholic Church teaches regarding end-of-life medical decisions and treatment. Catholic bioethics differs from secular bioethics which values different things, she pointed out.

“The truth that life is a precious gift from God with profound implications for the question of stewardship over human life,” the St. Mary the Virgin parishioner said, quoting the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We are not the owners of our lives and, hence, do not have absolute power over life. We have a duty to preserve our life and to use it for the glory of God.”

Courtney Taylor, JD, MS,  a health law attorney and bioethicist, presents at the first Aging with Grace Conference at Holy Family Parish on July 18, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

But the obligation to preserve life is not absolute. Catholics can reject life-preserving procedures that are not beneficial or excessively burdensome for the patient or family.

“Forgoing disproportionate or extraordinary means of preserving life is not euthanasia or suicide,” she pointed out. “If it’s not helping, you don’t have to do it.”

Intent is very important when it comes to making ethical medical decisions.

“Increasing a medication dosage to control pain is allowed even if it has the effect of slowing breathing and hastening death,” Taylor said. “If you give an overdose of medication intending to end life, that’s euthanasia even if you have the good intention of easing suffering.”

Deacon Daniel Zavala helped the audience understand caring for the sick and elderly, not just from the side of knowledge, but the heart. Addressing the topic, “Growing Older with Grace and Wisdom,” the coordinator of parish life at St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Roanoke drew from personal experience to engage the audience.

“As we age, we have more time to reflect on what we learn and what God has taught us about the real meaning and purpose of our lives,” he said.

For 13 years, the deacon and his wife, Lani, welcomed her mother into their home. Making that decision wasn’t easy for him. The former engineer at McDonnell Douglas, who met his spouse as a teenager, witnessed firsthand the abuse his wife endured from her mother. The unexpected responsibility of caregiving also interrupted the couple’s plan to travel after their youngest child left for college.

“Lani took care of her mom with such love and care as if she was the most wonderful mom in the world,” he recalled. “God gave me an example of what a disciple of Christ looks like. It was awe-inspiring for me.”

The selfless compassion Lani demonstrated toward her parent is an example of what Christ asks His followers to do in the great commandment: love your neighbor.

“There are moments in our lives when we bring God’s love, mercy and even His grace to others because that’s how it works. It flows through us to others,” the deacon stressed. “How we treat others is a picture window into the condition of our own souls. How different the world would be if mercy and grace to others prevailed.”

Patricia Brown participates in an interactive session during the Aging with Grace Conference at Holy Family Parish on July 18, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

During the workshop, Catholic estate planning and probate lawyers Ross Griffith and Jenna M. Lusk, both members of the St. Thomas More Society Fort Worth, shed light on the importance of wills, power-of-attorney documents, advanced directives, trusts, and beneficiary designations.

Preparing ancillary estate documents, like an advanced directive (living will), is important.

“This is the document that allows you to make your wishes known in the event of hospice or terminal illness. Do you want to be kept alive through any means possible or just kept comfortable?” challenged Lusk, a St. Patrick parishioner. “Concerns about life and elder care issues are all very valid and play into what you think is the best decision for you.”

Lusk recommended having an open conversation with family members concerning end of life issues.

“Some children do not want to make these decisions because they’re not comfortable with finances or health care,” she explained. “It’s a way of avoiding stress and other family problems.”

Estate planning involves two different areas — incapacitation and death.

“Power of attorney and advanced directives only apply when you’re alive and end with death,” Griffith specified. “Wills and beneficiary designations come into play after you pass away.”

Do-it-yourself wills are popular, but the Nolan Catholic alumnus, who’s been practicing law for 30 years, advises against them. It’s particularly critical to get legal advice if one has children from a second marriage or a separate property is involved.

“Don’t try to figure this stuff out yourself. Talk to a lawyer,” he warned. With the exception of beneficiary designations and a few other examples, “If it’s not in the will, it’s not going to happen.”

Renée Underwood, chief development officer at the Advancement Foundation, said feedback received from workshop attendees is favorable.

“They feel it was worth their time and would like to bring it to other parts of the diocese,” said the stewardship and planned-giving professional. “Going forward, we may include more specific information about dementia and people losing their faculties.”

Her interactive “Picture Your Legacy” presentation at the seminar was designed to spark thoughts about family, faith, and the future.

“It’s not a high-pressure sales pitch but an opportunity for people to start reflecting on who they are and how they want to be remembered,” Underwood explained. “These are conversations we need to have with our grown children. It’s difficult but necessary.”

Currently going through the process of estate planning for himself and relatives, Good Shepherd parishioner Alan Store, found the workshop timely.

“Getting the Catholic perspective is why we’re here,” he said. “Understanding the guidelines is important. A stroke happens, and you’re forced to consider things you haven’t thought of before. It’s best to plan for the future.”

Aging with Grace, Diocese of Fort Worth, Advancement Foundation, St. Thomas More Society Fort Worth, medical, legal, spiritual, end-of-life issues, trending-english