This week saw the lifting of the government’s restrictive ban on people aged over seventy. There has been a lot of talk about it in the media, and it was greeted with delight by those in this age bracket. I listened to an interview with former government minister, Mary O’Rourke, speaking about how excited she was at the prospect of being able to get into her car and drive wherever she wanted, after such a long period of being confined indoors.
Another woman made an interesting point when she observed that not all people who are classified as elderly are the same. Some might be bedridden; others go for a jog every day. This evoked a natural resentment at the tendency we have to categorize people as if they could be definitely defined by virtue of the number of years they have lived. Some object to the terms ‘elderly’ and ‘old’, preferring ‘senior citizen’. It is true that often the first two terms do come with negative connotations.
So how do we view the senior citizens amongst us? One thing we can be sure of is that unless we die young, or in middle age, we’ll all be elderly one day. In a culture which advertises Botox, anti-aging serum, cream to diminish wrinkles, and so forth, we could be forgiven for assuming that getting old is not desirable; in fact, it is something to be held at bay as long as possible.
Western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. This relates back to the Protestant work ethic, which ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work which diminishes in old age. Being old also implies a closeness to death and death is greatly feared by many, especially in the Western world.
This is in contrast to the attitude of the Native American tribal communities where elders are respected for their wisdom and life experiences. Within Native American families, it is common for the elders to be expected to pass down their learning to younger members.
In Japan, seniors are highly respected and celebrated. The country even has a national paid holiday called ‘Respect for the Aged Day’ to show appreciation for older people. The Japanese have three different forms of language: casual, polite, and honorific. When they are speaking to someone with more years behind them, they use keiyo, an honorific form of language.
China and India also honour their elders. Eastern cultures like China adhere to the Confucian tradition of ‘filial piety’, which prioritizes the family unit and values senior citizens with the utmost respect. Mediterranean and Latin cultures place similar priority on the family. In both cultures it is commonplace for multiple people to live together under one roof, sharing a home and all the duties that come with maintaining one.
Western culture tends to sideline older people and are more used to think of them as inmates of Nursing Homes. It often seems that they are better off shuffled out of sight.
The recent controversy about the neglect of people in such homes during the initial preparations to tackle Covid-19 led some to suggest that older people are considered less important. Age alone seemed to be given a very weighting in some Irish hospitals to determine who should and who should not go into ICU. It would appear to make more sense to attach more importance to underlying conditions such as respiratory and heart problems. In this way, age is not such a big consideration.
One of the items on yesterday’s news was the emergence of black market hairdressing. Not being able to get their hair done has been a real issue for many during the lockdown. One of the causes of this is panic around evidence of emerging grey roots. Grey hair is associated with aging and therefore not desirable.
A negative aspect of such thinking was aptly illustrated in the furor caused when the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton appeared in public showing (shock and horror) grey roots! Celebrity hairdresser Nicky Clarke, who also tended the hair of Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson was 100% in favour of Kate getting rid of her grey hair, saying it was neither a good luck or attractive.
Such criticism is very indicative of a celebrity culture focused on beauty and outward appearances, where, whether you are deemed to be attractive or not, is measured by your ‘looks’. This is tied to a culture of materialism where the more you ‘have’ the more ‘valuable’ you are.
Ironically the older we get the more we learn how unimportant ‘things’ are. Growing awareness of our own mortality may help us to appreciate our lives more instead of comparing our circumstances to others and striving for more material things.
As Christians, we are aware that this life is a pilgrimage. Pope Francis has said that the Christian life is about allowing Jesus and the Holy Spirit to prepare each person to truly see and enjoy the beauty of eternal life. By saying he will prepare a place in Heaven, Jesus means he will prepare his followers to enjoy heaven, to see, to hear, and to understand the beauty of that which awaits us, that homeland towards which we are journeying.
In a society which only values ‘productivity’, we may be deemed to be too old to be any good, or of any use to anyone. This leads to patronizing attitudes and an assumption that people can no longer enjoy their lives. It also ignores the fact that people enjoy different things and can always learn new skills, as is proved by the amount of older people who took to using computers.
As we grow older we get nearer to God. We don’t have to please anyone and we attain wisdom we may have had to learn from suffering, and which we did not have when we were younger. We have earned the right to ‘be’ without the pressure of having to ‘do’.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan