In the theology class I’m taking, one of the older students lives in a residential care facility. My classmate is full of vim and vigor, but the facility — like most — includes different levels of care, all the way from “barely any” to “full on, full time.” Many of the residents who need full time care have ALS, Alzheimer’s, or other diseases that have robbed them of their memories and many of their basic abilities.
One of the bodily functions that becomes a problem for many of our elderly is swallowing; a mechanical act that we all take for granted. Another is the simple act of feeding oneself, which can be an issue for both memory loss patients and those whose motor skills have been compromised. Once eating becomes a problem, a patient is vulnerable to the vicious cycle of decreased appetite / weight loss / frailty / compromised immunity and bone loss; a cycle that ends with an inability to fight off germs, recover from falls, or simply take in enough calories to sustain life.
Historically, the approach to these problems has been to serve residents with diminished motor skills “finger foods” that they can consume without utensils, and to serve patients with compromised swallowing function pureed or liquidized food.
There are several problems with this. First of all, “finger foods” are notoriously lacking in nutritional value. Secondly, serving chicken nuggets to one person while everyone else eats baked chicken serves only to highlight that person’s circumstances to his or her peers. And thirdly, there are very few people who enjoy being spoon fed after the age of two.
So I perked up with interest when my classmate said she’d attended a presentation on Grind Dining, which I’d never heard of before tonight. Grind Dining, she explained, is a method of taking the food everyone else is eating — pasta, meat, rice, salad, vegetables, fruit — and grinding it into tiny, easily-swallowed pieces, which are then reassembled in attractive, eye-pleasing servings that can be eaten with the fingers. She’d had the opportunity to taste some of the food, and found it absolutely delicious, filling, and true to the original taste of its component parts.
Grind Dining results in food that retains its nutritional value, stimulates the appetite through smell and appearance, and is easily swallowed. And, it allows patients, who are already dealing with limitations and diminished capabilities, to eat what their peers are eating, feed themselves, and — most importantly — retain their dignity.
There’s something unspeakably beautiful about that last part.
I think the Great Commandment — to love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind, and to love your neighbor, who is as you are — contains an expectation that we’ll honor one another in our frailty. I think it asks that we recognize our human weakness, our shared mortality, our common fears and hopes and concerns, and in doing so, that we respect the dignity of every man and woman, recognizing that even the most downtrodden, the most broken, and the most compromised among us are beloved children of God, just as we are.
Maybe Grind Dining didn’t set out to fulfill the Great Commandment, but I think it’s doing it, in the same way that all of the tender acts of care and concern done by people on a daily basis — quietly and without fanfare — are fulfilling the Great Commandment, too.
I had a second conversation, with a different classmate, tonight. She told me that a few weeks ago, after I’d delivered my Spiritual Autobiography, in which I recounted a series of extremely difficult events that took place over the past three years, she couldn’t help but be amazed that I’d held up during all that was taking place. “It would have broken a lesser woman,” she said. “You’re very strong.”
I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was that, while everything around me was falling apart, I had some friends who never stopped patching me back up. One in particular made it his mission to make sure I knew that no matter how broken I felt at the time, I was still a worthwhile person, beloved by God. He never once devalued what I was experiencing, never hurried me to get my act together, never judged my concerns, and never discounted my fears. When I was a mess, he ran interference and never let me feel inadequate; when I was struggling to see a way forward, he shone a light and patiently waited for me to take the first step.
Every act of tenderness allowed me to retain my dignity. Every act of friendship and love reminded me that no matter how I might feel at any given moment, God had me in his sights.
When you get the opportunity, put the Great Commandment into action, like my friend did. Love your neighbor who is as you are: often strong but sometimes weak; frequently whole but occasionally broken; alternately confident and unsure, kind and cruel, rational and nonsensical, hopeful and fearful, brave and cowardly…but always beloved of God.
Because at the end of the day, we all need help sometimes, swallowing what life’s doled out for us.
For more information on Grind Dining: Grind Dining ASC Cares