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Q and A with Fr John Flader: Caring for the elderly

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Pope Benedict XVI had said: “The quality of a society, I would like to say of a civilization, is also judged by the way the elderly are treated and the place reserved for them in common living.”
Pope Benedict XVI had said: “The quality of a society, I would like to say of a civilization, is also judged by the way the elderly are treated and the place reserved for them in common living.”

I work in an aged care home and, while many of the people there have frequent visits from members of their family, many others see their children only rarely, even though they live in the same city. This disturbs me. How should we view this?

The situation you describe is unfortunately quite common these days. I remember reading how St Mother Teresa was visiting a nursing home in an affluent country run by the Missionaries of Charity and she was wondering why so many patients were just staring at the door.

Her sisters explained that these people had few visits from their children and they were constantly looking at the door in the hope that their children might come that day. This is sad.

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I believe it is part of our culture, at least in some countries and for some people, that we don’t really value what our elderly parents have done for us.

We find it easier to put them in a nursing home where they are well looked after by the staff so we don’t have to visit them so often. I say “at least in some countries” because in many countries the elderly are habitually looked after in the homes of their children.

I think, for example, of the case of the mother of an Australian family who was becoming unable to live on her own and her children decided to put her in a nursing home.

The Italian-born husband of one of the children objected, saying he and his wife would take her into their own home. They did this, much to the joy of the mother.

Pope Francis spoke beautifully about care for the elderly in one of his addresses during the Year of the Family in 2015. On 4 March that year he said, “While we are young, we are induced to ignore old age, as if it were a sickness to avoid.”

“Then, when we become old, especially if we are poor, sick or alone, we experience the lacunae of a society planned for efficiency that, consequently, ignores the elderly. And the elderly are richness; they cannot be ignored.”

He mentioned that during a 2012 visit to a home for the elderly, Pope Benedict XVI had said: “The quality of a society, I would like to say of a civilization, is also judged by the way the elderly are treated and the place reserved for them in common living.”

“It’s true”, Pope Francis commented, “attention to the elderly makes the difference in a civilisation. In a civilisation, is there attention to the elderly? Is there a place for the elderly?”

“If so, this civilisation will go forward because it respects the wisdom of the elderly. In a civilisation where there is no place for the elderly, where they are discarded because they create problems, such a society bears in it the virus of death.”

Pope Francis related too how his grandmother once told the story of “an elderly grandfather who would soil himself when he ate, because he couldn’t take the soup spoon to his mouth. And his son, that is, the father of the family, decided to separate him from the common table.

“And he had a table placed in the kitchen so that he could eat alone and not be seen and thus would not be an embarrassment when friends came to eat or dine. A few days later, he came home and found his son playing with wood, a hammer and nails. He was making something. The father asked: ‘What are you making?’ ‘I’m making a table, Daddy.’ ‘A table, why?’ ‘To have it for when you become old and so you can eat there.’ Children have more consciousness than we do.

“We must awaken the collective sense of gratitude, of appreciation, of hospitality, which makes the elderly feel a living part of their community.

“The elderly are men and women, fathers and mothers that have been before us on the same path, in our own home, in our daily battle for a fitting life. They are men and women from whom we have received much.

“The elderly person is not a stranger. We are the elderly: sooner or later, but inevitably, even if we don’t think about it. And if we do not learn to treat the elderly well, that is how we will be treated … Where there is no honor for the elderly, there is no future for the young people.”

We should all learn from this.

A helpful way to see what we owe our elderly parents is to remember what they did for us when we were infants.

They bathed us, changed our nappies, fed us and lifted us out of bed to put us in a chair at the table.

When they become old, we may have to do all of this for them. We should not begrudge doing so.

It is only to repay them at the end of their life for what they did for us at the beginning of ours. And if we do this for our elderly parents, our children will do it for us.

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