Camillian Religious – Daughters of St. Camillus – Sister Ministers of the Sick of St. Camillus (Camillian Sisters)
14 July 2015 Liturgical Feast Day of St. Camillus de Lellis 401 years after his death
Ageing with dignity and elegance: an ethical imperative and a personal choice
‘My son, take care of your father when he grows old; give him no cause for worry as long as he lives. Be sympathetic even if his mind fails him; don’t look down on him just because you are strong and healthy. The Lord will not forget your kindness and will help you’ (Sir 3, 12-14a).
In the year dedicated to consecrated life we are invited to ‘look to the past with gratitude, to live the present with passion, serving like the Samaritan with compassion and embracing the future with hope’. In this message we express our gratitude to those who have built the heroic history of our Order and our religious Congregations – a charismatic history that has traversed four centuries and which is a call to respond to the multiple calls that we have in front of us – so as not to forget our elderly and sick religious brothers and sisters today.
Differently from Asian culture where elderly people are still seen as being culturally relevant and socially respected as the memory and the embodied wisdom of the community (cf. in Japan the day dedicated to the elderly is celebrated as a national holiday), in our Western culture the elderly are not highly regarded. The emphasis is increasingly placed on their disabilities and limitations, on the costs and expenditure that are needed for their care at the level of health-care policies, and on the deterioration of the system of pensions. Increasingly less emphasis is placed on their rich life histories, on the experience and human wisdom of which they are the custodians. At the basis of this reductive vision of the human person, who is defined solely for what he or she ‘produces and not for what he or she is’, a great question is located: ageing constitutes a stage in life that is characterised by an existential crisis that has three dimensions: an identity crisis (with self loss); a crisis of autonomy (with an increasing dependence on others); and a crisis of belonging (an uprooting from the elderly person’s environment and a move towards an old people’s home).
We need to retrieve, through a resilient approach, the meaning of this crisis that deeply afflicts elderly people, above all in our society which is by now defined as a throwaway civilisation and one with programmed expiry dates!
Until not so long ago, reference was made simply to old age. Today the scientific literature on ageing detects three categories of elderly people: a) young elderly people between the ages of 65 and 75; b) elderly people in the true sense of the term between the ages of 75 and 85; and c) very elderly people, those who are over the age of 85, who in the hear future, according to researchers in this field, will increasingly grow in numbers. At the time of St. Camillus people spoke a great deal about the poor and the sick, whereas the category of elderly people was almost never mentioned in his writings! Certainly there were elderly people during that epoch. Today, however, together with the poor and the sick we also have the great task of looking after the elderly who need special care and concern, above all if they have chronic degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The ageing of the population is a very recent phenomenon in human history. In developed countries the number of paediatric hospitals has decreased in a significant way and in many cases they have even disappeared, but in the other direction nursing homes and/or old people’s homes have multiplied, becoming a real form of remunerative business within the panorama of the world of health and health care.
Today we live in a society that is called ‘post-modern’; reference is made to ‘post-industrial’, ‘post-Christian’ and even ‘post-human’ civilisation! Yes! ‘Post-humanism’ is an ideological movement which in proclaiming the banishing of death from the life of man – which is seen together with ageing as an illness to which a remedy must be found and not as a dimension of our existence – offers us the ‘gift of immortality’ on earth.
But humanity has still not managed to uphold and apply the fundamental rights of man which were proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948 at the end of the Second World War (1939-1945) and which guarantee the possibility of living with dignity (freedom of thought and of conscience, education, health, housing, work, etc.). And now we are already involved in this anthropological vision according to which a human being is something that has to be gone beyond and superseded. Naturally enough, we have before us an ideology which, just as it has tried to deny our finitude, is now also trying to deny our human condition. Age cannot be seen as a pathological process or worse as a tragic destiny upon which we cannot intervene except through passive acceptance!
We have to discover how it is possible to grow old with grace, wisdom, serenity and aesthetic elegance. This is the horizon of the analysis that we offer in this message.