The Catholic bishops have issued a bare-faced challenge to the ways we treat and refer to old people, calling on individuals, communities and governments to reject rampant ageism and the toxic attitudes that often accompany concepts such as “intergenerational theft”.
The call is made in A place at the table: social justice in an ageing society, the 2016-17 social justice statement recently released by the bishops’ secretariat, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in lieu of Social Justice Sunday on 25 September.
In it, the bishops link Australia’s treatment of the aged with Western discomfort around dying, and also point to the looming threat posed by euthanasia and assisted dying in a society that “idealises notions of youthfulness and vitality”.
Calling for a “renewed solidarity among generations young and old” – not only in wider society but also in the Church – the bishops survey a number of challenges confronting Australia as a country with a rapidly ageing population.
The bishops point to recent survey data showing a quarter of people over 50 had experienced some form of age-based discrimination, calling for greater workplace flexibility for older people, and for increased training, particularly in lieu of an expected rise in unemployment as a result of automation.
The document also surveys the consequences of caring for children on women’s retirement savings and the emotional and financial stress born by grandparents in caring for their grandchildren, often out of their own families’ financial necessity.
Writing in a summary message in the report, social justice council chaiman Bishop Vincent Long said stereotypes of older people as “doddering, out of touch or (necessarily) dependent” were “false and dehumanising”.
“People are not commodities, to be valued only for their productivity or purchasing power,” Bishop Long said in the message.
“They are human beings in the fullest sense, precious in their own right, possessing a dignity that was given them by God. Furthermore, their wisdom and lived experience are priceless treasures that can enrich our lives …
“Old age will come to us all eventually, and we will need the help and support of others …
“We must never forget that the older person before us is a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a friend, and most importantly, a son or daughter of God. All of us are created in the image and likeness of God, and are called to have our rightful place at the table He has prepared.”
A place at the table comes several months after an explosive ABC report showing candid footage of a carer attempting to suffocate an 89-year-old man at a Japara Healthcare-owned nursing home in Adelaide.
Borrowing a quote from the Council on the Ageing, the bishops refer to isolation as “the great enabler of abuse”, noting that an estimated 20 per cent of older Australians are affected by social isolation and are vulnerable to ill treatment in family and institutional settings.
“It is vital that we recognise aged care as an essential community service,” the bishops write.
“The marketisation of the aged care sector brings some key challenges – it is not simply a business and older people are not just another market.”
The bishops urge governments to ensure the adequacy of entitlements for older Australians – that they reflect their human dignity – calling for a national, cross-community strategy for “positive ageing”.
Addressing the Church, the bishops call on young and older people to get to know one another better: for young people to recognise in older people “their heritage” – a wealth of experiences and wisdom – while also asking older Catholics, “what will you bring to the table?”
In a lengthy section called ‘Protecting people at the end of life’, the bishops reflect on their own efforts to give people peace of mind through creating their own advanced care directives (available at myfuturecare.org.au).
“Consumerism promotes a flawed and deceptive notion of family in which no one grows old, there is no sickness, sorrow or death.
“Our society idealises notions of youthfulness and vitality, and so the reality of the journey from an active lifestyle to one of dependence and declining health is often glossed over or denied. Even the laudable notions of ‘active’ and ‘healthy’ ageing may mask the reality of our own death and dying …
“Pope Francis warns us to be on guard against the great lie that ‘lurks behind certain phrases that so insist on the importance of “quality of life” that they make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living’.
“‘Dying with dignity’ is one such insidious phrase. It claims to be an act of compassion for those who are dying, but actually entails the deliberate taking of a person’s life.
“Missing altogether in this phrase is the deeper human call to dignify those who are dying by accompanying them in their final journey in life.”