In January 2021, Pope Francis announced a new celebration: World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly, to be celebrated on the fourth Sunday in July, close to the feast of Sts Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus. This was, he said, the ‘first-fruits’ of the Amoris Laetitia Year and he wanted it to be a reminder that ‘old age is a gift’. He wanted us to never forget the elderly.

In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Francis writes that we have grown too used to wastefulness; not only wastefulness of food but wastefulness of human life, dispensing with it when we don’t consider it useful anymore. The elderly and the unborn are tragic victims of this ‘throwaway world’ (FT, §18). He also critiques the way the elderly have been treated in the wake of the coronavirus: leaving them to the care of others in isolation and without the intimacy of family.

‘They did not have to die that way’ (FT, §19).

Learning how to deal with the coronavirus is a fraught and complex topic, but the pope makes an incisive point that in our attempt to protect the elderly we have left them without something precious: living and dying close to family.

The situation

But, of course, our response to the coronavirus only revealed and made worse problems that were already present. One of these problems was the way in which we as a society honour and value the elderly among us. For Pope Francis, one of the significant things about the elderly is that they provide us with a connection to our roots; they offer the guidance, experience and wisdom that young people need growing up in the world (FT, §19). The thing is, so many changes have taken place in Western society – technological and otherwise – that this idea is foreign to us. Western society is one that lives increasingly, to use the title of Joseph Ratzinger’s book, “without roots”. Learning how to live as if we had roots is one of the great challenges of today.

Sociologist Jared Diamond has done plenty of work comparing the West’s approach to the elderly with that of other cultures. In his TED talk, "How societies can grow old better", Diamond summarises the findings from his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday. He makes the clear point that tribal societies should not be ‘scorned as primitive nor romanticised as happy and peaceful’. Each tribal society works differently, with different challenges and rituals and ways of life. As a result, there is no uniform ‘treatment of the elderly’. Yet, outside of the nomadic societies – for whom the elderly are too much of a burden and are often disposed of when the group is on the move – there are some important points of contrast.

In New Guinea farming societies, for example, elderly people are actually seen to be of value. They live close to their families and can look after the children while the parents are away; they have vast knowledge and experience that, very often, can be the difference between life and death; they are also able to craft and contribute materially to their society. Because of this, Diamond argues, the elderly are well looked after.

In the West, on the other hand, there are a number of converging factors that have resulted in us seeing the elderly as being of less ‘social value’ (for lack of a better term): the cult of youth, the modern work ethic, our emphasis on independence and self-reliance, and the constant movement of people who break ties with their family. Changes in technology, too, are of particular importance in understanding the displacement of the elderly as a source of wisdom, especially the internet. There is no need for young people, so it seems, to turn to our elders for their knowledge and experience and wisdom. All of this taken together, we’re socially primed for the elderly to live in a ‘throwaway world’.

It’s no wonder Pope Francis is urging us to think more deeply about this issue.

The responsibility of the Church

Why, though, is this an issue the Church needs to think about and talk about and act on? Well, on the one hand, the ‘pro-life ethic’ of the Church is one that contains life in its entirety, from birth until natural death. But also, according to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the family is the foundation of society because that is where a communion of love, an ‘authentic community of persons’, comes about (§221). Although the core of family is made up of the love of married persons and their children, it includes reverence for grandparents and the elderly who are a 'resource for the wellbeing of the family and of the whole of society,’ (§222), a wellbeing that cannot be reduced to the logic of economic efficiency.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that Jesus makes possible a pastoral care that is unique and that cuts against the logic of the modern world:

‘We worship a wounded saviour. We follow as a people also wounded. Such a people cannot help but care for one another in a manner that imitates God’s care for our wounds. They must, therefore, be persons who have learned to be in the presence of suffering without resorting to simplistic explanations … What matters is that we are wounded people caring for one another in the name of that wound called “the Christ.”’

A final act of discipleship

Sr Lorraine Testa ASJM works in pastoral care at Villa Maria Catholic Homes (VMCH) in Melbourne, and advocates for a more ‘person-centred’ approach to care for the elderly, especially towards the end of their life. One of the difficulties that elderly people experience today is the feeling of having to “go it alone”, Sr Lorraine says. 'But in the presence of a Christian community, the elderly need not “go it alone”’. She believes that growing old can actually be a period of rich spiritual significance:

‘Ageing is a movement into steady and slow contemplation of one’s worth – even into old age. To believe, even in the years that may often be derogatorily described as lived in “God’s waiting room”, one’s life still has something to contribute.’

And since life is lived within the context of society, Christians need to embody this all the more.

According to Sr Lorraine, ‘the ageing Christian is not one who lives apart from but is one with the community,’ as they grow in acceptance of their vocation to old age. As the elderly come closer to death the community is able to see how they approach it, and this witness is a gift. Approaching death well, as a witness to others, ‘is a final act of discipleship to the Christian community,’ she says.

When the elderly live and die isolated from their community and from their family, something tragic has taken place. The responsibility of the Church is to step into that isolated space and be a Church that witnesses to the closeness of God. In that space, together we can grow as the disciples we’re called to be, because discipleship does not happen in isolation. It cannot.

View resources for this year's World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly (25 July)