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The elderly are a blessing, not a burden Print
Guest column
Thursday, Oct. 06, 2011 -- 12:00 AM

As the 20th century came to a close, the United Nations celebrated the International Year of Older Persons, heralding the vision of “A Society for All Ages.”guest column logo

The first years of the new millennium have been anything but that, with the abandonment of frail seniors during natural disasters from New Orleans to Japan, the legalization of assisted suicide in several U.S. states and foreign countries, and political rhetoric that seems to consider the growing population of seniors merely as a drain on our health care system and the federal budget. Is this the society for all ages we envisioned in 1999?

Honor elderly as blessings

Rather than looking upon the growing numbers of older persons as a burden, Pope Benedict — like his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II — has called them a blessing for society. “Every generation can learn from the experience and wisdom of the generation that preceded it,” he affirmed in speaking to the elderly at St. Peter’s Residence in London last September. The pope insisted that “the provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much as an act of generosity but as the repayment of a debt of gratitude.”

The pope’s words should give us pause. We might also recall a bit of Biblical wisdom: “With your whole heart honor your father; your mother’s birth pangs forget not,” Sirach tells us. “Remember, of these parents you were born; what can you give them for all they gave you?” (Sir 7:28). Sirach admonishes us, “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, it will serve as a sin offering — it will take lasting root.” (Sir 3:12–14).

We are indebted

To realize all that we owe the elderly and to honor them as a blessing, perhaps we need to slow down a bit and look at each one as if they were our own parent or grandparent. Maybe we need to see ourselves in them – for we too will be old one day, if we are blessed to enjoy a long life.

Perhaps what we really need to do is to look upon the elderly as Pope Benedict does — as persons imbued with inviolable dignity, and thus worthy of our respect and care, simply because they have been made in the image and likeness of God and are sustained by his Providence. “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary,” Benedict said in his first homily as pope and again to the elderly last September in London. “Life is a gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and to take.”

Respect for young and old

This October, American Catholics will once again observe Respect Life Month. When we think of pro-life activities, we naturally think of the unborn, and rightly so. But this year, we would do well to reflect on the elderly — the contributions they have made to our families and society, their wisdom and experience, the care and assistance they need, and the respect they deserve as human persons created in God’s image.

The U.S. bishops recently published a statement on assisted suicide entitled “To Live Each Day with Dignity” (available at www.usccb.org/toliveeachday). It is a valuable read for anyone who cares about the dignity of human life.

Pray for culture of life

As Little Sisters of the Poor, we are committed to the accompaniment and care of the needy elderly, following the advice of our foundress, Saint Jeanne, who said, “Never forget that the poor are Our Lord . . . Making the elderly happy, that is what counts!”

We are caregivers — not politicians or policy makers. But we do know that caring for the elderly poor is growing more difficult all the time because of funding cuts, a chronic shortage of qualified professional and paraprofessional care givers, and the attitudes of a society becoming increasingly callous with regard to the sacredness of human life.

During this Respect Life Month we invite you to pray for the triumph of the culture of life, to advocate for better financing of care for low-income seniors and better educational programs and benefits for caregivers, and simply to cherish the elders in your own family or community.

Sr. Constance Carolyn Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.