I would like to share a few thoughts with you on the subject of aging. The problem of our aged persons, or senior citizens, is one that affects all of us. If you read the great work of Goethe, "Faust", you might recall the dialogue between the aging Faust and Mephistophelis. Faust does not want to get old. He wants to keep perpetually young. He makes a pact with the devil that if he is given youth, the Devil will have his body and soul, and the beautiful Gretchen would be given as his wife. Young Gretchen was the symbol of modesty, purity and vitality. The devil looks at this aging old man and with his language, demeans him in much the same way our society demeans our aged. He says, "You? What have you got to offer anyone? Your sickliness, aches and pains know no bounds. Your virility is gone, and your masculinity has no appeal. You have nothing left to offer but your age."
Some of those words of the Devil ring out today in our treatment of the aged senior citizens. It is a fact that over 60% of the people in nursing homes never have a visitor from the beginning of the year to the end. It is a terrible indictment against us, who were taught that the corporal work of mercy is to take care of the sick. This command from Christ did not say that you had to know them. The command was just to take care of those in need. Many years ago one of the great theologians from Europe came up with a very updated definition of sin. As you recall, our definition of sin was a turning away from God. His definition was turning away from those in need who could only be helped by us.
Taking care of the aged person is something that is hard for all of us to do. Why? Because we see in the aged the impending reminder of our own mortality. We see in them a future reminder of what is going to become of us as we enter the category of the aged. Most of us are turned off. Why is it that so many of our young people have so little to do with our senior citizens? One reason that comes across is that the young people feel that the aged can do nothing for their own personal benefit. This is hard to believe, but when you talk to the hundreds of senior citizens, as we do, who rarely see their grandchildren, who rarely get a card, or a visit from them, these senior citizens know that they have been crossed off by many of the young. When you see how our society has such a cosmetic culture attitude about looking you can see how those growing old are in conflict with their desires.
What do many senior citizens think of when they think of aging? They think of it as a life sentence facing only an end. They think of it as a time of atrophy with no expansion, a time of misery not joy, of confusion not clarity, and of conflict not peace.
So many of us have so many misconceptions about the aged. These misconceptions cause us to keep a healthy distance from them. We always talk about senility in reference to older people. The fact is that senility only occurs in 5% to 15% of our over 65 population. Another myth that we have about the aged is their intellectual ability. In most aged people, little or no decline takes place in their mental performance. The speed of their response might be slower, but that is all. What we have conveniently forgotten about the productivity of the aged is that men like Michelangelo completed the Dome of Saint Peter at age 70. He continued to produce masterpieces until he was 89 years of age. Wagner completed Parsifal at age 69. John the Twenty Third became Pope when he was over 80. Pianist Arthur Rubinstein turned 90 in 1977 and celebrated by having a television concert. In most recent times John Glenn at 70 went back to space.
Recently, we had the experience of trying to help a senior citizen receive the social security supplemental income that was justly owed her. Through some bureaucratic mistake, it was letter after letter and call after call without any result. After all sorts of threats of putting this incident in newspapers and embarrassing the Bureau to give what was owed to this woman, the matter was settled. Why cannot other aged people who have no resources at their disposal be treated in a humane, Christ-like fashion? The government cannot do it. Institutional and bureaucratic red tape prevents a small degree of humanity from helping them. The responsibility for what is done for the aged is ours on a most personal basis. What we do for them today is what we ourselves, as aged people, are going to enjoy tomorrow.
There is no cure for aging, but there is a chance for all of us to show we care. It is within the competence of all of us to reach out to one aged person in or out of a nursing home. To make our children aware that they, too, are going to go this way might be an opportunity for some to reverence those who have given us so much. Albert Camus, when he was talking about the aged and our individual responsibility to them, said, "the aged are people who live a life where their winter is darkness. We must teach them how to enjoy an invincible summer." To visit, to call, to show that you personally care will never solve the total problem of the aged, but it will help. It will show one person that you care, that you think of them and the values they handed down with the fondest memories. Your consolation for doing this is not that it is only the right thing to do in the sight of God to fulfill the corporal works of mercy. It is in the reality that you who have reached out to help the aged, will one day find yourself being helped by others much younger than you when you reach the twilight years of your life. Remember the words of Christ, "do unto others as you would want others to do unto you" -- for the aged of today, and for ourselves as the aged of tomorrow.
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