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 In Praise of Older People: First World Day

Earlier this week, it was announced that the First World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly will be celebrated on Sunday 25th July.  The press release came from the Vatican’s Dicastery (a department of the Roman Curia) for the Laity, Family and Life.  The theme chosen by Pope Francis for this inaugural commemoration is, “I am with you always” (Mt 28:20).  It expresses the closeness of the Lord and the Church to every older person, especially in these challenging times of the Covid–19 Pandemic. Older people and grandparents have a mission of evangelization, proclamation and prayer and of encouraging young people in their faith.

It is a sad fact that the enforced isolation of the older members of our society has been one of the unhappy consequences of the Coronavirus.  In the beginning, the term ‘cocooning’ was used to describe what was happening.  This rather comforting word evokes images of a warm soft space wherein one is nurtured and protected.  This was not the experience of those people who were told that they could not go outside their front door and were not allowed to call on others or have others call to them.

Bishop Kevin Doran summed it up when he said, “The benefit of the cocoon must be constantly weighed against the enormous impact on individual people and on society of placing an entire generation indefinitely ‘on the shelf’…The cocoon isolates everyone over 70 years of age.  Many of these people have a huge contribution to make to the extended family and to the communities in which they live.”

Sadly, there is evidence of cognitive deterioration in many older people as a direct result of the Covid restrictions.

Contact and Stimulus

Except in a minority of older people who are suffering from dementia, the intellect remains intact.  The memory may drop somewhat particularly regarding names of people and places.  An inability to recall events in detail may also be noticed in another person.  However, the most important powers of the intellect, such as the ability to make judgements, to be reflective, to have an opinion, to learn new knowledge, to be creative, remain alive.  The reaction time may minimally slow down, but most people remain alert, especially if that extra moment is allowed for and particularly when taking in new information or trying to work out a problem.

With the passing of the years, we certainly all do become more forgetful but there are ways to mitigate the process, namely: activity, proper nourishment, and social and intellectual stimulation. Older people do not, it is true, frequent crowded pubs or restaurants as younger folk do but they do need continuing social contact and stimulus.  They also need the Church, as part of a living congregation. Research has shown that older people who attend church live longer, are more intellectually lively and have better social relations – even leaving aside the spiritual benefits. Even monks who live detached from the world reside in the community.

The whole issue of loneliness came to the fore during the lockdown in a way that it had never done so before.

Youth and Old Age

A friend of mine, who is a taxi driver was telling me that a very lively elderly lady he knew used to collect her granddaughter from school every day.  He drove her on a regular basis and knew that she brought the little girl to town or for lunch and helped her with her homework.  She would enjoy telling him various stories about their excursions.  Having not seen her for nearly over a year he got quite a shock when he encountered her just lately.  He said she had ‘gone downhill’ so much in the interim that he hardly recognized her.

While many cultures celebrate the ageing process and venerate their elders, in western cultures it seems the opposite applies- we venerate youth. Indeed, there is even an inclination to view physical signs of human ageing with distaste.  Very often as people get older, they begin to feel that there is something wrong with them and that they are losing value.

The Gift of Old Age

Make-up and toiletries are often advertised with the promise that they will restore your youthful appearance but ultimately that sort of promise is a false one. We are all getting older minute by minute and nothing will change that essential fact.  A real affirmation of life would be a cult of old age, as in traditional Japan.  There the meaning of life was in its fulfilment and not in its first flush.

In the light of this truth, it is indeed to be welcomed that the Pope has set aside a day to celebrate older people, whether they are grandparents or not.  Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, the prefect of the Dicastery, has said that the annual event would be a gift to the whole Church and one that emphasizes the pastoral care of the elderly as “a priority that can no longer be postponed by any Christian community” …In the encyclical, Fratelli Tutti the Holy Father reminds us that no one is saved alone.  With this in mind, we must treasure the spirit and human wealth that has been handed down from generation to generation.”

As we move now towards greater freedom and more activity it is important to remember that many older people may still be anxious about venturing out.  It is up to all of us to continue to observe the Department of Health guidelines and behave in a way that illustrates that respect and consideration for their well-being continues to be of paramount importance.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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