Reading Life Into Failing Bodies: The Chaplaincy of Eros and Thanatos

A third of my summer chaplaincy internship was spent at a nursing home. It was quite a contrast from the pace of chaplaincy work at the hospital, each with much to commend it.

At the hospital, I liked the pastoral-care-as-extreme-sport, the showing up at the ER in the middle of the night because someone really, really needed you. I discovered that I have a gift for ministering to angry-men-about-to-explode-from-grief. Most relationships were short in duration and yet, I was still able to develop genuine affection for real people I will likely never see again.

At the nursing home, the pace was much slower. Much. Instead of a pager blaring the need for middle-of-the-night be-here-a-minute-ago, at the nursing home there was the announcement over the P.A. system a full half hour in advance of Bingo starting, because it took  t  h  a  t     l  o  n  g  for the residents to walk the hallway.

At the nursing home, I was able to develop longer-term relationships, ones filled with appreciation, curiosity, delight, and affection:

The woman with early-onset Alzheimers who blasted music in her room.

The woman whose body folded in upon itself.

The woman whose stroke left her communicating by pointing to a letter board, often ignored due to the effort it took to communicate with her.

The man who gave me his Tehillim (Jewish book of psalms), which I cherish to this day.

The woman who was so so lonely, wishing to be at the end of her life, but resigned that it was not yet time.

The one who had not yet given up that her chronic pain might one day cease.

“Bart” was literally twice my age. Plus one year. I cannot tell his story here to protect his confidentiality, but it is a particularly poignant one, which added to my intrigue and enjoyment of our visits together.

Bart flirted shamelessly with me. All the time. Every pastoral visit.

I didn’t quite know what to do with this flirting. It left me flustered. Surprised. Unsure. Uncentered. Not sure what to do with this particularly strong energy.

Now, being an Our Whole Lives trainer, I know that…

…”old people” are sexual beings…

…”old people” have sexual feelings…

…”old people have sex”…

(…and not necessarily safer sex, as it turns out: the rates of sexually transmitted infections among our elders are high and growing.)

Not that long ago, the Daily Beast published an article titled, “Sex and the Senior Citizen: How the Elderly Get it On,” by Barbie Latza Nadeau. In it, the author notes a British study that reveals that nearly one third of men aged 80-90 are still masturbating or having sex (compare this to 14% of women in the same age range).

For Americans, the numbers are slightly different, but we are still getting some action:
from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior

I just learned about Unitarian Univeralist minister, Rev. Hugo “Holly” Holleroth who recently published a book, called “The Naked Truth about Aging.”  Worth a look?  I’m certainly going to check it out.

Even though I knew that we all are sexual beings our whole lives;

Even though I knew there is a strong connection between Thanatos (death, and in this case, aging) and Eros (erotic love, life force);

Even though I knew nothing inappropriate or untoward was going to happen;

It’s something to “know” a thing and it’s something different to experience that energy focused insistently, if respectfully, on me. Bart’s flirting rattled me.

I was out of my depth. So I explored these pastoral visits frankly with my supervisor — after an initial bout of timidity, our discussions flourished with spiritual and intellectual curiosity about this powerful dynamic. I reflected on transference and counter-transference; on the emotional and spiritual power that elderly Bart might be experiencing as he expressed this part of himself often is often invisible or unrecognized, perhaps even discouraged; on my discomfort, on my own sexual powers, and on pastoral authority that might be derived from that source. I was deeply thankful for a supervisor and a level of trust strong enough that we could do this depth of supervision.

As a chaplain, I wanted to honor this natural, beautiful, primal, essential impulse in this awesome human being as best as I could and as much as my role as a chaplain would allow. It was not easy. I leaned heavily on those supervision sessions.

In the end, I chose to ignore some flirtations, redirect others as necessary, and without shaming him or feeling embarrassment myself, engage some — as appropriate, even trying to use them as a way to get at deeper, existential questions for this man. Meeting him where he was at – a cardinal rule of chaplaincy.



Sex and life.

Sex and aging.

Sex and edging toward death.

Sex and life and aging and death.

One gorgeous, edgy, voluptuous cloth.

Bart asked me, and I chose, to step outside any box of comfort previously known to me. I’d like to think that I am a better person and better minister because of it.

Thank you, Bart.

P.S. The title of this post comes from a line of one of my poems, which you can find here.

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality—from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum… join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex–the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts, and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality

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