Remember the elderly in the autumn of their lives Print
Seeing with Jesus' Eyes
Thursday, Sep. 15, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

October 1 is International Day of Older Persons as declared by the United Nations.

It is appropriate to celebrate this day during the fall of the year in order to focus upon the elderly's autumn blessings and needs. An elderly Italian couple reminded me of this recently.

Visiting the elderly

On August 9, 2016, in Rome, Italy, four policemen visited the home of Michele, a 94-year-old man and Jole, his 89-year-old wife.

After 70 years of marriage, they still loved each other, but they were suffering from the cross of loneliness, partially because their neighbors were vacationing and also because of upsetting TV reports about terrorists' attacks and abused children.

To comfort them, the officers cooked the couple's favorite Italian meal -- spaghetti with butter and parmesan. They also spent the evening socializing with them and learning about their lives.

The officers posted the couples' cross of loneliness on Facebook.

In the post, they wrote poetically, "Life isn't always easy, especially when the city empties and neighbors are away on holiday. Sometimes loneliness dissolves into tears. Sometimes it's like a summer storm that suddenly overwhelms you."

According to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, by 2060, there will be about 98 million older Americans, more than twice their number in 2014.

According to a University of California, San Francisco study, 43 percent of elderly people feel lonely, but only 18 percent live alone.

Alone and unloved

This shows that loneliness doesn't necessarily come from being alone, but from feeling alone and unloved because nobody seems to care.

Being loved helps to give meaning and purpose to life. I know!

In an October 1, 2013 interview, Pope Francis stated that youth unemployment and the elderly's loneliness were "the most urgent" problems facing the Church. He added, "The old need care and companionship; the young need employment."

In 1994 in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., St. Teresa said, "I remember visiting a home for elderly parents of children who had put them there and maybe forgot them.

"They had good food, comfortable quarters, television, and other necessities; but everyone kept looking towards the door. I asked, 'Sister, why are these people who have every comfort, always looking towards the door? Why aren't they smiling? I'm accustomed to seeing even the dying smile.'

"Sister explained, 'They are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten.'"

Reaching out

Bobbie Smith, a recognized professional caregiver for Home Instead Senior Care, offers some doable ways we can respond to lonely elderly persons.

• Visit them and keep in touch. Listen and observe. Smile, even if it hurts. Asking them to "tell me more" is a simple way to get them and ourselves to open up.

• Be ready to respond to the unexpected. Smith walked with a grumpy, withdrawn 91-year-old man. She began to sing "Let me Call You Sweetheart." Unexpectedly the angry man began to sing with her and spoke to her for the first time when he reluctantly acknowledged, "you're okay!"

Research shows that unrecognized elderly adults experience cognitive decline at much faster rates than seniors who are mentally stimulated by relationships.

• Invite the elderly to share their hard earned wisdom, knowledge, and humor. Foster relationships between seniors and younger persons.

• Do something simple such as sending cards, bringing little gifts, or their favorite snack. These and other loving gestures help seniors feel they aren't throwaways, but human persons.

Giving time

For those of you who go the extra mile for the elderly, keep up your graced work! When I was in assisted living, a 97-year-old man said that regular visits by his three daughters kept him going.

Perhaps there are elderly persons, including invisible or forgotten relatives, who would appreciate a friend, telephone call, or visit.

Being a friend can help prevent loneliness. Are we willing and able to make or take time to be that friend?

Let's remember that it's in the family that we learned to respect and care for others, especially the elderly who once cared for us. Now maybe it's our turn to give back to them.

Fr. Donald Lange is a pastor emeritus in the Diocese of Madison.