e-mail us


An excellent Vatican document for this Year of Older Persons


The United Nations has declared 1999 the International Year of Older Persons. The bad news is that no one seems to have heard of it. It will be worse news if it does no more than throw a crumb of recognition or gratitude to older people. There is, this pivotal year, both a desperate need and a brilliant opportunity to get age right.

We’re all standing so close to our own age, we can’t see it well. When young, we wish to be older; old, we wish we were young again. All aspects, no doubt, of our hearts being restless and the grass greener on the other side.

Dictionaries of quotations contain generations of seesaw sentiments for and against the mixed blessings of age. Joseph Campbell waxed: “As a white candle/ in a holy place,/ so is the beauty/ of an aged face.” Seneca, on the other hand, lamented: “Old age is an incurable disease.” In our day the majority seem to be siding with Seneca.

It wasn’t always so. Traditional cultures revered the old. There must have been a reason. If life is worth living at all, then its accumulated years must have an accumulated value. This is a spiritual estimate beyond appearances, beyond fashion, beyond monetary considerations. It denotes more ethereal baggage such as wisdom, continuity, memory, the energy of prayers heard or unheard, of hopes that soared or sank. The old were repositories of tradition: not just primitive customs and antiquated lifestyles but some secret, some finer, more transcendent expression of us at our best “back there” as we came, presumably, from God.

These qualities, once upon a time, bore authority. Having survived was a reason for having something to say and commanding attention and respect.

Slowly and subtly the picture changed. Succeeding generations set less store by the old imponderables. The Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and similar down-to-earth movements pushed older people aside in the hunt for quick and tangible results. It was essentially a descent into a pervasive materialism. It has reached its nadir in our time when culture strives so fiercely to cultivate youth in order to sell things to it.

Words are crude instruments to describe something as subtle as age, yet so integral to each individual life. Paradoxes abound. The old have more money, yet the adpersons go after youth. We all want to go to heaven, yet no one wants to go yet. The ideal of beauty seems to point to the young rather than the old. Is this a trend created by advertizers, and, if so, could they make old age as desirable tomorrow as youth is today? In the art world, an antique has added worth. This is an artificial creation of popular perception. Surely it can be done with people.

The United Nations had a good idea, yet no one seems to be paying attention. But another international body has stepped up: The Vatican’s Pontifical Council on the Laity has issued its own document, “The Dignity of Older People and Their Mission in the Church and in the World.” Its focus is on “third age” (65 to 75) and “fourth age” people (75 and older) and its aim to create “a society for all ages.”

Making large leaps of progress in this direction ought to be dead easy: It’s not something the rest of us are doing for the old; we’re doing it for ourselves who will soon be old.

“The number of older people is constantly increasing, while that of the young is constantly decreasing,” the Vatican document notes. Experts have seen this coming. They recognized that abstract demographics involve real-life social, economic, psychological and spiritual problems. The World Assembly on Aging, under the aegis of the United Nations, met in Vienna in 1982 and its findings have become the international point of reference ever since. An annual world day for older people has also emerged, celebrated Oct. 1.

It would be silly to downplay the downside of old age. The stiffness and soreness and slowness, the loss of memory or eyesight are not figments of the imagination, which also is not as vivid as it used to be. Yet youth isn’t all bliss, either. Young people are suffering their own traumas, sometimes enough to cause them to kill or be killed by themselves or others. There is enough pain for all ages.

But also enough hope, which is by definition limitless. These moves by the United Nations and the church ought to be glimmers of hope for old people, who sometimes are lucky enough to go gently and gracefully but all too often are left lonely and in need.

The excellent Vatican document lists several “charisms proper to old age”: disinterestedness, memory, experience, interdependence and a more complete vision of life. These don’t sound very promising, yet the brief paragraph on disinterestedness shows how exalted our later years can be:

“The prevailing culture of our time measures the value of our actions according to criteria of efficiency and material success, which ignore the dimension of disinterestedness: of giving something or giving ourselves without any thought of a return. Older people, who have time on their hands, may recall the attention of an over-busy society to the need to break down the barriers of an indifference that debases, discourages and stifles altruistic impulses.”

We should do ourselves a favor by reminding the world that this is the Year of Older Persons. If that works, every year will become a year of older persons.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999