Recently we celebrated 100 years since the 1916 Rising and the reading of the proclamation that helped shape and pave the way for the country we have today. I was lucky to be present at my children’s national school at Easter as some of the students there read the proclamation that our forefathers had written a 100 years ago, outlining what they wished and wanted our country to become.
One thing that I have noticed from my many years living in Africa and Asia is that in tribal cultures the elderly and the people that have gone before them play and have played an important role. They are the keepers of that culture’s memories and the holders of wisdom, and proclaim their wishes and dreams for the future for the children and their children’s children. As such, the elderly in these far off places are honoured and respected members of those societies and cultures because they have paved the way for the future for their young. But what I find now in many modern cultures this is often not the case, especially when we see and read how some of our elderly have been treated so appallingly in some elderly homes or establishments. Many elderly people that I know say they feel ignored, left out, lost, undervalued and disrespected. This is a very sad commentary on modernisation and urbanisation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change this situation by taking the time to examine our attitudes about the elderly and taking action for the betterment of life for them and for all. Modern societies tend to be obsessed with ideas of newness, youth and progress. Scientific studies tell us how to do everything, from the way we raise our children to what we need to eat for breakfast. As a result, the wisdom that is passed down from older generations is often disregarded. Of course, parents, grandparents and retired persons have more than enough information to offer the world. Their maturity and experience allows for a larger perspective on life, and we can learn a lot from talking to elderly people. It’s a shame that society doesn’t do more to allow our older population, our elderly, to continue to feel productive for the rest of their lives.
We can all play a part in changing this. I was guest at a retirement group get together in Galway recently and they were so inspirational to me and were full of life and ideas about how to help people in our county and in our country. The elderly make wonderful storytellers and creating programs where they could share their real life experiences with others is another way to educate and inspire other generations. Take stock of your relationship with the elderly population. Maybe you don’t really listen to them because you hold the belief that their time has passed and they are too old to understand what you are going through. You may even realise that you don’t have any relationships with older people. Try to understand why and how our cultural perception of the elderly influences the way you perceive them.
Some time ago, my Mam asked me to take her shopping in town. I dragged along my two daughters as well with the offer of a surprise if they helped out. While we were in the car park, my Mam suddenly slipped and fell. I knelt down and tried to lift her up but was not strong enough. My two daughters ran over to us all worried and upset for Nana. “Can we help? Will Nana be okay?” they asked worriedly. Together, we gently lifted Nana to her feet. She was a little bruised, tired and embarrassed, but otherwise unhurt. The girls then played away after they saw that Nana would be okay. Their service lasted only a few minutes, but the memory of it will never leave me. In a world where children and young people are often accused of being self-centred and oblivious, here was proof that many wonderful children and young people have great empathy and love for our elderly and for their loved ones who have paved the way for them.
The girls showed me even at their young age that they understood a fundamental truth about human dignity: the elderly deserve our respect, our admiration, our gratitude, our assistance and most of all our love and care. Our elderly were once children and young people themselves, and then they poured out their lives for the generations of their children who would follow them. The wear and tear on their bodies and minds is a testament to all they gave of themselves, every year, every week, every day of their lives so that we could have a better life than in someways they had. The hands that washed thousands of dishes now struggle to hold a cup. The eyes that looked on their families with love now strain to recognise the faces of their children. The feet that once danced around the kitchen now stumble in awkward, unbalanced half-steps. They gave all they had, and now they depend on the ones who were born after they were to be there, to walk with them as the sun sets on the long day of their lives.
These amazing people have such admirable strength, so much wisdom, so much to teach us. We should be flocking to them as people flock to celebrities, sitting at their feet and listening to their stories and learning all we can from them while they are still with us! And yet, many old people are lonely.
In the book, ‘Mother Teresa: In My Own Words’, Blessed Mother Teresa tells a story of a time she visited a “magnificent” home for senior citizens. The residents lacked nothing materially, but Mother noticed that no one smiled, and “they were all attentive to the door.” “Why doesn’t anybody smile? Why do they look constantly at the door?” she asked the religious sister who ran the place. “The same thing always happens,” the sister answered. “They are always waiting for someone to come visit them. They dream of a son or daughter, some member of the family, or a friend coming through that door to them.” Mother Teresa goes on to explain that the poverty of these residents was their loneliness. “The poverty of having no one coming to visit them is the poverty that older people feel the most,” she says. Growing old is not easy for any of us. Just as my two daughters lifted up my Mam when she fell, we can help lift the spirits of the elderly when their spirits fall. If only we remember the elderly here on earth and ease their loneliness with our visits, we come closer to heaven by being with them. Even when it seems like they can’t communicate with us, recognise us, or know we’re there, we can show them our love, hug them, smile at them, talk to them, sit with them and most of all love them. No effort spent in love is ever lost. How much we gain simply by being in the presence of these people who have lived and given so much, these wonderful people who near the end of their journey, who are filled to the brim with life and want to pass it on to so many of us so that we can hopefully, God willing, have a better future.
“A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law and four year old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table, but the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth. The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. “We must do something about grandfather,” said the son. “I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor.” So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in grandfather’s direction, he sometimes had a tear in his eye as he sat alone.
Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food. The four year old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?” Just as sweetly the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mammy to eat your food from when I grow up.”
The four year old smiled and went back to work. The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no words were spoken, both knew what must be done. That evening the husband took grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days, he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.”
An Elder’s Prayer
To end this thought, I will go to a beautiful moving prayer in my Nana Scully’s prayer book that she always said called Beatitudes for Friends of the Aged, ‘Blessed are they who understand my faltering step and palsied hand. Blessed are they who know that my ears today must strain to catch the things they say.
‘Blessed are they who seem to know that my eyes are dim and my wits are slow. Blessed are they who looked away when coffee spilled at table today. Blessed are they with cheery smiles that stop to chat for a little while. Blessed are they who never say, ‘You’ve told that story twice today.’ Blessed are they who know the ways to bring back memories of yesterdays. Blessed are they who make it known that I’m loved, respected and not alone. Blessed are they who know I’m at a loss to find strength to carry the Cross. Blessed are they who ease the days on my journey home in loving ways and who make each of my days a gift.’
One of the biggest honours that exist is being able to take care of those older adults who cared for us too.
Our parents, and all those elderly who sacrificed their lives, with all of their time, money and effort for us so that we might have in someways better lives, deserve our utmost respect, gratitude and unconditional love especially when we still have them with us, we should always treat them as the greatest treasure we have at this present time for tomorrow is never promised.
Thought for the week
As your thought for this week, remember that each day is a gift and that many of our elderly and aged parents, friends and relatives helped to provide us with such a gift. Resolve to be more aware of the elderly in our society for they are our mothers, fathers, grandparents, family, mentors, work colleagues, wise folk and the pioneers that came before us and paved the way for our future and we must now also do the same for our own children’s future.