Although we seem to live in a youth-centered society, older people
have recently been in the spotlight. Their numbers alone demand attention:
The elderly population in this country has increased 11-fold between
1900 and 1994, whereas the non-elderly population increased only threefold,
says a U.S. Census Bureau report.
The United Nations had designated 1999 as the International Year
of Older Persons. In response Pope John Paul II wrote a letter in
October “to my elderly brothers and sisters.” And the following month
the U.S. bishops released Blessings of Age: A Pastoral Message
on Growing Older Within the Faith Community.
The pope’s letter recognizes “elderly people who remain amazingly
youthful and vigorous in spirit,” as well as those who are being cared
for by others. It is written by a 79-year-old man who has experienced
his share of conflicts and ill health.
the Gifts of Experience
The bishops’ pastoral challenges the entire faith community to “form
a fresh perspective, one that sees older persons as active participants
in contributing to the Church’s life and mission, and is meeting the
spiritual needs of its members.” It is meant to be studied by individuals
It challenges an old myth about elderly people: “While individual
seniors vary in their abilities, health and emotional outlook, the
perception of aging as a period of unrelenting decline and withdrawal
from society is simply untrue.”
It encourages older people “to give something back, to make a significant
contribution to your Church and community and, in doing so, to enrich
your own life.” This remark seems aimed at the multitudes of retired
people who could be doing more to make the world a better place, rather
than those who are already doing so. Helping others beats boredom,
offers the opportunity to be with other people and feels good.
The pastoral encourages individuals, the Church and society “to find
innovative ways in which to use the gifts and experience of older
people.” One person I know developed her own innovative way to use
her special skills. She is a retired geography professor who takes
a carload of students from an inner-city school on a field trip almost
every week throughout the school year. How many other retirees possess
special skills that don’t fit existing projects? And how many schools
and parishes are willing to allow someone to try something that hasn’t
been done before?
The pastoral urges older people to help themselves, too, by speaking
out, writing letters and forming organizations: “You are your own
best advocates!” Social Security reform, end-of-life issues and health
care are some relevant examples.
The pastoral also calls upon parishes to develop structures “that
encourage and facilitate the contributions of older people” and specifies
who needs to give input: “Older people themselves should help to identify
their pastoral needs and decide how they are met.”
The pastoral recognizes that many retirees are active in parish ministries
such as visiting homebound people and serving on committees: “Older
people are providers, not just recipients, of pastoral care.” Indeed,
parishes couldn’t survive without their assistance.
Commenting on parishioners who receive pastoral care and recognizing
that parishes differ in their needs and resources, the pastoral says
that, when a parish cannot provide a service, it “must be able to
direct older persons, their family members and caregivers to appropriate
The pastoral calls older people to “act with greater moral grounding
and vision....In later life you begin to wonder if your life has made
a difference to anyone—if it has meaning.”
Older people can be positive role models, create pleasant memories
and be considered blessings. For example, grandparents can pass along
their cultural heritage to their grandchildren and then return the
favor by listening attentively as the youngsters tell their stories.
Even homebound people, who often are the recipients of services, can
pray for others, give compliments and say, “Thank you.”
The pastoral keeps reminding older people that it’s not too late
for some things: “While you cannot change past events, you can ask
God to help you change your attitudes and perceptions of them....You
may discover a need for reconciliation: to seek forgiveness or to
extend it to others.”
The pastoral asks young adults to identify their image of older people.
Some children observe elderly neighbors who smile and wave; others
encounter grouchy souls who yell at them to keep off the grass. Some
children have grandparents who always say something nice; others have
grandparents who constantly complain.
All of us need to reflect upon the image we project to those who
might copy our behavior. It’s much easier to be a pleasant and productive
older person if such a pattern was established at an earlier age.
We’re never too old—or too young—to work on improving our image. —M.J.D.
Blessings of Age is available on the Internet (www.nccbuscc.org)
or by calling 800-235-8722 (order number 5-341).