And no, not false dignity . Rather, the kind of dignity where, as the founder of this magazine once put it, one “neither refuses to live nor fears to die”:
Gravely ill with heart disease, tethered to an oxygen tank, her feet swollen and her appetite gone, Sister Dorothy Quinn, 87, readied herself to die in the nursing wing of the Sisters of St. Joseph convent where she has been a member since she was a teenager.
She was surrounded by friends and colleagues of nearly seven decades. Some had been with her in college, others fellow teachers in Alabama at the time of the Selma march, more from her years as a home health aide and spiritual counselor to elderly shut-ins . . . .
There were goodbyes and decisions about giving away her quilting supplies and the jigsaw puzzle collection that inspired the patterns of her one-of-a-kind pieces. She consoled her biological sister, who pleaded with her to do whatever it took to stay alive.
Even as her prognosis gradually improved from hours to weeks and even months, Sister Dorothys goal was not immortality; it was getting back to quilting, as she has. She spread her latest on her bed: Autumnal sunflowers. Im not afraid of death, she said. Even when I was dying, I wasnt afraid of it. You just get a feeling within yourself at a certain point. You know when to let it be.
A convent is a world apart, unduplicable. But the Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation in this Rochester suburb, animate many factors that studies say contribute to successful aging and a gentle deathnone of which require this special setting. These include a large social network, intellectual stimulation, continued engagement in life and spiritual beliefs, as well as health care guided by the less-is-more principles of palliative and hospice caretrends that are moving from the fringes to the mainstream.