The Church needs to spearhead a new approach to old age

I was chatting to an elderly friend the other day. Although he is very compos mentis, he is now aged 90 and living on his own in the country. He realises that soon he will have to give up driving his car and thus will find it hard to get to Mass. Rather than wait until his future is decided for him after a crisis he has decided to book himself into a Home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. He will leave a spacious flat full of books, paintings, antique furniture and the memorabilia of a rich and cultured life for one room in a Home, surrounded by others who will probably be in a more advanced state of frailty than he is – and he is entirely cheerful at the prospect.

He told me that he would be living in a home with its own chapel, where he would be near the Blessed Sacrament and able to attend daily Mass. He sees this as a privilege and a blessing. He regards his new home as the antechamber to heaven – before telling me he fully expects to go to Purgatory first. “The whole point of Purgatory” he explains to me with enthusiasm, “is that you know you are safe, despite the pain.” The whole conversation struck me as very Catholic: my friend’s merriment, alongside his wholehearted belief in the Resurrection; his understanding that the older you become in this life the nearer to you are to the next world; and the sober acceptance that he will have to endure cleansing purgatorial fires.

The conversation brightened my day. It is so easy to get sucked in to the general sense of defeatism and despondency about old age in this country. A headline in the Telegraph on Wednesday said “Council chiefs: Safety of elderly and disabled at risk” – yet another gloomy report on the neglect of old people today. The article quoted Age UK as stating that “Hundreds of thousands of older people who struggle with tasks such as washing and dressing are being condemned to “sink or swim alone”.

My friend is one of the lucky ones who will be looked after by loving Sisters whose vocation is to care for the poor and vulnerable. According to David Pearson, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, there is a national issue at stake here, “about how much we as one of the richest nations in the world value the care that we provide for the most vulnerable people in our communities.” There is also the thought that on July 18 Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords. If it were ever to become law the elderly and the disabled would immediately become even more vulnerable than they are already.

We need a dramatic new approach to old age – and what institution better to initiate it than the Church? CNA reports that Pope Francis will meet with old people in St Peter’s Square on September 28, a day organised by the Pontifical Council for the Family. The day will be dedicated to the elderly and, according to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family it will be designed to show that “old age is not a shipwreck but a vocation.” He spoke of old age as a call whose meaning has yet to be fully explored. “An adequate reflection has not yet been developed” he said, adding that it must be emphasised that “the elderly are not only the object of attention or care, but that they themselves also have a new perspective in life… The Church has a responsibility to reconsider the role of the elderly beyond the traditional tasks of transmitting the faith and helping parents.” He suggested they could play a vital role in prayer – “they have more time available…echoing Anna the prophetess.”

I think a new lay movement is called for here – a Society of St Simeon and St Anna, perhaps? I must remember to tell my mother (aged 90 and now frail, living next door to me,) next time she grumbles about the things she can no longer do, that her life is “not a shipwreck but a vocation”. I’ll be interested to see how she, with her firm hold on her daily need for whisky and cigarettes, responds.