We pray for the elderly, who represent the roots and memory of a people; may their experience and wisdom help young people to look towards the future with hope and responsibility.
The way in which a society treats children, the chronically ill in mind and body and the elderly is a test of its values. They are alike in making little economic contribution to society. In a society that puts a high value on material prosperity and is focused on individuals competing for wealth, the elderly can be seen as past their use by date and as leaners, not lifters. That society is impoverished.
We can see traces of such a miserable attitude in Australian society. The too frequent stories of elderly people being robbed and bashed, and of people taking control of their elderly parents’ wealth for their own gain while treating them abusively, display their contempt for the elderly and perhaps a fear of their own growing old. The demeaning conditions in many nursing homes revealed during the Covid epidemic, too, are signs of disrespect for the elderly who are warehoused and left to die. Many people fear with some reason that the legalisation of assisted dying may increase the pressures on frail and elderly people not to bother their families and society by staying alive.
Against that background Pope Francis’ prayer intention points to the importance of elderly people in society. Our care for them shows that we are not simply individuals who make and take our own lives as we will, but that we each have a unique dignity and flourish only as members of a community. In our communities we set our compass by what we have inherited from others and have the privilege and responsibility to hand on to others in turn what we have learned.
Elderly people represent where we have come from. They hold the stories of the world that have shaped us and that we need to understand in order to know ourselves. Children appreciate this if they enjoy the great gift of grandparents who have time to tell stories of their own world. Their stories and love also provide a moral compass for their grandchildren. They have lived long enough to see what matters and to see that all people matter. They have learned from their mistakes. A society that does not value them highly will make the same mistakes. It has no depth.
Pope Francis speaks in greater detail of the gift that young people can find in the elderly. They can discover hope and responsibility. Sometimes we learn these qualities happily from people who display them admirably in their own lives. But sometimes we learn them from struggle. Many people as they become older can become a nuisance. They are always in the way. Their clothes might smell. They tell the same stories over and over again. They are irritable and complain. Young people can see them as a burden, be ashamed of them and want to neglect them. As they grow they can learn to admire the strength of the hold on life their grandparents have and the richness of their lives and they can grow in responsibility to them.
Ultimately elderly people keep alive our past, gentle our present and mirror our future. They are a gift to us and especially to our children.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ
Feature photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash.