The Gift of the Elderly
"Before his tomb, in the Vatican grottoes, the pilgrimage of many faithful still continues without interruption, and this constitutes an eloquent sign of how our beloved John Paul II has entered people's hearts, above all because of his testimony of love and surrender in suffering. In him we have been able to admire the strength of faith and prayer, and the way in which he entrusted himself totally to Mary Most Holy, who always accompanied and protected him, especially in the most difficult and dramatic moments of his life."
It is to these difficult and dramatic moments of life, the years of suffering and patient endurance brought on by age, that my mind turns. Last week, I received news from my family in Kuala Lumpur that my paternal grandmother (right) - who you'll remember celebrated her 80th birthday only two months ago - had slipped in her bathroom and hurt her back. She was hospitalized for a few days and is now recovering at home, with the care of my ever patient and loving aunt. All these miles away, I prayed for and with the family for my grandmother and I ask your prayers too for her continued recovery and for those who care for her.
There is nothing quite like the rigours and frailty of old age to remind one of one's mortality and in the a week when that happened at home, followed by a reminder of our late beloved John Paul II, I spent some time pondering the mystery of ageing and human mortality. Moreover, in a religious community like ours, one encounters a wide range of ages in community and it is not unusual to find oneself living with elderly Dominicans. It is rather like the family set-up I am accustomed to in Asia, where extended families of three generations or more live in close proximity to one another, and sometimes even under the same roof! Here in England (and by extension, in Europe), it truly breaks my heart to see the elderly, bent over with age, still having to shop for themselves and struggling with heavy bags of groceries which they take to an empty home. In many ways, older religious are spared at least this aspect of the elderly life even though they still bear many responsibilities and duties and it is an inspiration for a young religious like myself to see the joy, steadfastness and resolution with which they live out their religious life.
Whether it is the late Pontiff, or my own grandmother, or a brother in my religious family, or simply the aged parishioners and passers-by I come across in my life, I often ponder the witness they offer to me... It is heart-rending that society so often rejects or ignores the elderly; we live in a time of ageism, where youth is idealized and even idolized. It annoys me when people make disparaging comments about the elderly, who after all only suffer the natural decline of human mortality, which we all will face one day. In this social and cultural climate, the British Parliament is discussing its' terrifying Euthanasia Bill, which could herald a legal development in which "a right to die can become a duty to die" as people could feel pressure from families caring for them. Those were the words of warning issued by Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. Moreover, as Pope John Paul II taught in 1999, "Regardless of intentions and circumstances, euthanasia is always an intrinsically evil act, a violation of God's law and an offence against the dignity of the human person" (Letter to the Elderly, 9).
None of the above symptoms are surprising, given our social climate. For, as John Paul the Great said in a letter in 2002,
"In the first place, the elderly must be considered in their dignity as persons, which does not diminish with the passing years nor with physical and mental deterioration. It is clear that such a positive view can flourish only in a culture capable of transcending social stereotypes which judge a person’s worth on the basis of youth, efficiency, physical vigour or perfect health. Experience shows that when this positive view breaks down older people are quickly marginalized and condemned to a loneliness which is a kind of social death. And does not the self-esteem of older people depend in large part on how they are viewed in the family and in society?"
The wonderful gift of the presence of the elderly both in the family home and in a religious community is that it stands as a sign of contradiction to the folly of the world and precisely those attitudes highlighted by the late Pontiff. For in such communities, the elderly are present as vital members of that community where they may be loved, respected and given responsibilities, consonant to their capabilities and talents, so that they are not regarded as useless or marginalized by ageist attitudes - in short, they are accorded human dignity.
There is indeed much that the elderly can teach the young and we should strain to listen more carefully to them and ask them to share their experiences and reflections with us. As a child I delighted in my grandmother's tales and quizzed her on life 'in the good ol' days' in Malaysia and China. Even now, I enjoy listening to the stories told by the older brethren in our religious community and the experiences of elderly parishioners. I have often learnt much from the elderly in this way.
As Pope John Paul II said in that 1999 'Letter to the Elderly':
"Consequently, whereas childhood and youth are the times when the human person is being formed and is completely directed towards the future, and — in coming to appreciate his own abilities — makes plans for adulthood, old age is not without its own benefits. As Saint Jerome observes, with the quieting of the passions, it “increases wisdom, and brings more mature counsels”. In a certain sense, it is the season for that wisdom which generally comes from experience, since “time is a great teacher”. The prayer of the Psalmist is well known: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart”... Thus the teaching and language of the Bible present old age as a “favourable time” for bringing life to its fulfilment and, in God's plan for each person, as a time when everything comes together and enables us better to grasp life's meaning and to attain “wisdom of heart”. “An honourable old age comes not with the passing of time”, observes the Book of Wisdom, “nor can it be measured in terms of years; rather, understanding is the hoary crown for men, and an unsullied life, the attainment of old age” (4:8-9). Old age is the final stage of human maturity and a sign of God's blessing"
It is sad when the elderly in fact no longer feel this sense of blessing but rather see their age as a burden on society... But youth has little wisdom and a society that neglects to heed the wisdom and experience of the old but is so enamoured by novelty, innovation and youth is one that is ultimately foolish and misdirected.
There is also the Christian witness offered by the elderly and I think their example in steadfastly living the Christian life inspires me most, both in our religious community and also in the lives of the elderly parishioners I used to visit. In the words of the previous Pope,
"The Christian community can receive much from the serene presence of older people. I think first of all in terms of evangelization: its effectiveness does not depend principally on technical expertise. In how many families are grandchildren taught the rudiments of the faith by their grandparents! There are many other areas where the elderly can make a beneficial contribution. The Spirit acts as and where he wills, and quite frequently he employs human means which seem of little account in the eyes of the world. How many people find understanding and comfort from elderly people who may be lonely or ill and yet are able to instil courage by their loving advice, their silent prayers, or their witness of suffering borne with patient acceptance! At the very time when their physical energies and their level of activity are decreasing, these brothers and sisters of ours become all the more precious in the mysterious plan of Providence"
But this is not to romanticize old age, which has very real sufferings and the onset of the symptoms of advanced years can be quite merciless and debilitating - but only if we allow it to rob our beloved elders of their dignity. Again, as Pope John Paul II said,
"It is also true that old age is a season of life in which individuals are victims of human frailty, and so are especially vulnerable. Very often, the onset of chronic illness incapacitates the old person and serves as an inevitable reminder of life’s end. At such times of suffering and dependence, the elderly not only need to be cared for with scientific and technical means but also to be looked after with efficiency and love, so that they do not feel that they are a useless burden or what is worse reach the point of wanting and asking for death"
For what gives all people of whatever age dignity, respect and true humanity is love. At the end of the day, the elderly asks of society, of us, of me, to love them for who they are and, in this respect, they are no different from anyone younger than them. We all long for love. It is when we fail to love properly and with Christian charity that we neglect, abandon and forget the elderly, seeing them as mere burdens and an inconvenience or even a drain on hard cold resources.
Finally, as Pope John Paul II wrote:
"It certainly helps to solve the problems connected with ageing if older people are effectively made part of society, by providing space for their experience, knowledge and wisdom. The elderly should never be considered a burden on society, but a resource which can contribute to society’s well-being. Not only do they show that there are aspects of life – human, cultural, moral and social values – which cannot be judged in terms of economic efficiency, but they can also make an effective contribution in the work-place and in leadership roles."
So let us pray for the elderly and thank God for them and the vital roles they play in our lives and may He grant us the courage and grace to love them as they deserve.