As someone who has recently retired, it was with newfound sympathy that I watched presentations appearing on the TV seeking a better deal for the aged. In an increasingly technological age elderly people find themselves isolated from their families and communities, unwanted, and out of touch.
The Fourth Commandment, “Honour your father and your mother”, is always a reminder that the family ought to be a place of love, respect, and caring for the ageing members of society who have a right to a life beyond material survival, a right to be educated, a right to spiritual care and comfort.
Many older people live with a silent, crippling fear. The cost of food, medical care, electricity and housing are a constant worry to them and in many cases social security payments remain inadequate to sustain a decent standard of living. Self-funded retirees are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the market on their superannuation funds.
The residents, and families of those in nursing homes, can be plagued by the fear of what might happen. In most nursing homes, care is excellent but too often we read of cases where patient care is sacrificed while operators amass huge profits. And those who continue to live at home find their resources stretched, property maintenance becomes expensive, personal care and nutrition suffer, isolation follows.
So where does the Church fit into all this? Elderly Catholics look to the Church for support and assistance. They expect the Church to be a community, where they can experience the comfort of a loving God, and share the hope given by the Risen Christ.
And our response? Families have the primary responsibility for the love, care and attention that the elderly need, for it is within the family circle that the elderly feel most accepted.
That said, some older people are distanced from their families and there is much the Catholic community can do to support them: identify the hidden elderly in our suburbs and invite them into the parish community life; offer opportunities for day care, home visits, car pools, recreation, etc; sponsor low-income housing programs for the elderly.
Sometimes, the point is reached where the family can no longer offer the most appropriate care for the older person and as the Catholic community we must ensure that our Catholic institutions provide professional care for the elderly. Families and parishes have an obligation to maintain regular visiting.
Older people don’t forfeit their basic human rights simply because they age. The right to life of the elderly is being attacked directly and indirectly by the proponents of euthanasia. The elderly can become targets of a mentality that disposes of the unwanted, and which would place end-of-life decisions solely in the hands of physicians or the State.
Our advocacy for the elderly must be firm and unrelenting. Governments will not act, and political parties will not promise, unless we make them listen and, of course, hold them to the promises they make.
Our program for action could include: reform of the pension system so that the payment enables older people to live in dignity and without fear; more low-income housing; higher priority of mental care for the elderly; more intensive inspection of nursing homes and real follow-up action.
The rupture between society and its elderly members requires a major effort to change attitudes, as well as social structures. This requires us to accept that we are the People of God and each person, no matter how young or how old, is an integral member.
Kevin Manning is Emeritus Bishop of Parramatta
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