Is civil discourse dead? Boulder Aquinas Center to host Robert George and Cornel West for virtual speaker series

Aaron Lambert

Is civil discourse dead? Two modern-day intellectual giants will address this pressing question next week in a virtual talk hosted by the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought (AICT) in Boulder.

On Jan. 21, AICT director Dr. Scott Powell will speak with Professor Robert George of Princeton University and Professor Cornel West of Harvard University in a talk that serves as the climax of their virtual speaker series that kicked off last fall. Professors George and Cornell are at two different ends of the ideological spectrum, yet their friendship and ability to engage in discourse is well known among the scholarly community, and serves as a crucial example to a society that seems to become more divided every day.

“Robert George and Cornel West [are] two men who have a deep, deep love for each other and a deep friendship with each other, but who disagree pretty intensely, politically and societally and about all sorts of other things,” Powell told the Denver Catholic. “Theirs is a demonstration of how we can actually disagree with each other in love.”

To register for the talk, visit thomascenter.org/civildiscourse. The talk starts at 7 p.m. mountain time.

The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought is the intellectual formation arm of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Each year, they host a variety of speakers and debates which address some of the hot topics of the times from a Catholic perspective. This year, due to COVID restrictions, these events cannot be held in-person, so the AICT has been going the virtual route instead.

Instead of the usual lecture format the speaker series utilizes, Powell has engaged in livestreamed conversations with the speakers, the first of which was Sept. 22 with Father Josh Johnson, Vocations Director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La. and author of Broken and Blessed, who discussed “Loving Well Across the Racial Divide.” The conversation format, Powell said, is both “easier to listen to,” and also reflects the goal of the speaker series, which is to show that it is possible to engage in conversations about contentious issues in a loving and civil way.

On Oct. 19. Dr. Powell had a conversation with Father Mike Schmitz about “Building Community in a Time of COVID.” Father Schmitz is the director of youth and young adult ministries in the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., and is best known for his YouTube videos in which he answers theological and moral questions.

On Nov. 19, Dr. Powell hosted a conversation with J.D. Flynn, former editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency and current editor-in-chief of The Pillar, on the topic of “Fake News and Spiritual Exhaustion.”

“There is an underlying theme that kind of runs through [the talks],” Powell explained. “The point to make is that a lot of folks aren’t actually having conversations about these things. We’re hearing soundbites. We’re hearing people yelling at each other. We’re seeing things being thrown at us and spit at us and yelled at us by the media, but we’re not seeing the experience of sitting down and talking through things.

“The reason I chose these particular topics and these particular speakers is that these are the questions that our students are asking and these are the conversations that they’re having online with each other,” Dr. Powell said. “I want them to know definitively that the church has stuff to say about this.”

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.