Pope Francis greets an elderly woman as he meets people in Asuncion, Paraguay, in this July 12, 2015 file photo. (SNC Photo/Paul Haring)
A few months ago my wife, who is not quite two years younger than me, started having trouble seeing. She made an appointment with the ophthalmologist, and when she got home, she confirmed what we had suspected: she needed bifocals, and the doctor prescribed her “multifocal” contact lenses. Only in her early 40s did she seem too young to need old person glasses, but we were all there, laughing at her misfortune. She took it well. She always does.
As Catholics, we do not necessarily believe in karma, but we are told that we will reap what we sow (cf. Gal 6:7). Because God has an amazing sense of timing and humor, months after we all laughed at my patient and young wife, life around me also started to get a little blurry. I had headaches and found myself holding books, menus, my phone and other things further from my face as I tried to read them. And so I too made an appointment. Same doctor, same diagnosis, same mockery. I deserved it.
My eyes aren’t the only parts of me that are aging. My wife and I recently completed what we thought was a relatively easy renovation project in our home – one that involved a lot of bending, bending, kneeling and squatting. The next morning I needed a crane to get out of bed, and my batch of Advil did nothing to ease the pain.
And we are not alone. My father, in the early 70s, had considerable pain in his right hip, which had already been replaced. Doctors found he was infected; he had to put in a new one. While recovering, he was housebound – tied to a chair, really – for the better part of three weeks. Although he didn’t need too much help – a few errands, picking up his meds, and a bit of cleaning – my two siblings and I got a glimpse of what our future five or 10 might look like. – or, God willing, 15 – years on the road.
They say Father Time is undefeated. Just in the last two months, I find that to be true.
Although it’s probably just a coincidence, just as my aging eyes were opening to the realities of aging, Pope Francis began in late February to give a new series of catechetical lectures on the value of older people during its Wednesday general audiences. His ideas on aging are not only profound and practical, but also indispensable in our society. Here are some highlights:
- “There is a lack of encouragement for people to seek [the elderly] and there is a lack of education for the community to recognize them. In short, for an age that is now decisive in the community space and extending over a third of the lifespan, there are – sometimes – care plans, but not life projects. Care plans, yes; but no intention of letting them live fully. And it is a vacuum of thought, imagination and creativity” (February 23).
- “A society in which the elderly do not speak to the young, the young do not speak to the elderly, the adults do not speak to the elderly or to the young, is a sterile society, without a future, a society which does not look to the horizon but rather looks at itself. And it gets lonely. May God help us find the right music for this harmonious relationship between the different ages: the little ones, the old ones, the big ones, all together: a beautiful symphony of dialogue” (March 2).
- “What is the meaning of my old age? … The meaning is this: to be a prophet of corruption and to say to others: “Stop, I have taken this path and it leads you nowhere! Now I’m going to tell you about my experience'” (March 16).
- “An old age that is granted this clarity is a precious gift for the generation that will follow. Listening personally and directly to the story of lived faith, with its ups and downs, is irreplaceable” (March 23).
- “Old age, which has cultivated the sensitivity of the soul, extinguishes all envy between generations. … This is what happens to an old person who opens up to a young person who opens up: he bids farewell to life while handing over, so to speak, the hand to the new generation” (March 30).
Each of his catechism talks is worth reading in its entirety, whether or not you need special glasses to do so.
Scott Warden is editor of Our Sunday Visitor.