Esteem elders and foster solidarity across generations

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Occasionally we hear disturbing stories in the media about young people who perpetrate abuse against the elderly. In a widely reported 2009 story, for example, caretakers at the Quadrangle Assisted Living facility outside Philadelphia were charged in connection with the abuse of an elderly patient named Lois McCallister. Three employees, aged 19, 21 and 22, were caught on a surveillance camera as they taunted, mocked and assaulted a partially naked 78-year-old woman.

She had begun complaining to visiting family members several months prior that someone was hurting her and hitting her. There were also initial signs of bruising on her hand and wrist. After bringing the bruises to the attention of the nursing home’s administrators, the family was informed that the allegations were unfounded, and were told the accusations were simply the result of the patient’s advancing dementia. Family members suspected there was more to it and clandestinely installed a video camera, hidden in a clock in the victim’s room.

After capturing the assailants on tape, they concluded that the abuse suffered by their mother had been ongoing for some time. One of the young women charged in the case told investigators she was working on another floor the night the clock/camera captured the scene in the elderly woman’s room. A family member later told news reporters, “They called the third girl down from another floor and said, ‘Come down, we’re going to start.’”

As a consequence of the abuse, the Department of Public Welfare eventually revoked the license for the facility, and the family filed a civil lawsuit against the parent company.

A tragic event like this leads to intense questioning about how these young people, charged with the special care of the older generation, could end up becoming so callous, inhuman and brutal. What can be done to prevent this kind of “intergenerational disconnect” from occurring in the future? And what can be done to build up unity and respect between generations?

A nearly universal point of reference over the years, and a counsel of incalculable worth, has been the injunction enshrined in the Decalogue: Honor your father and mother. A decision to abide by this commandment invariably serves to strengthen the concern of children for their parents and elders, and helps forge a bond between the generations. The Book of Sirach offers similarly sage advice: “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins…”

In a sense, it is precisely the weakness and vulnerability of the elderly that beckons us to manifest a greater respect towards them, and never to mistreat them in the strength of youth. As Pope John Paul II beautifully summed it up in his 1999 Letter to the Elderly: “… the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the different generations…” Compassionately attending to the needs of the elderly draws the generations together and builds solidarity.

When the unique gifts of the elderly are invested and shared with the younger generation, this, too, builds up solidarity. Elderly people help us see human affairs with a sense of perspective tempered by experience, reflection and wisdom. Whenever grandparents contribute to the raising and formation of the grandchildren, even by doing something as simple as teaching them how to pray and think about God, they strengthen intergenerational ties and build family unity.

We can foster intergenerational care and support within our families and communities in other simple ways as well, for example, through conscientious parenting, including small but important steps such as insisting on meal time together as a family (which builds up mutual respect and concern for others in the family); teaching compassion by visiting sick or elderly neighbors together; teaching children to welcome all human life, even when weak or handicapped; praying together as a family, decreasing media time and guarding against violent video games, pornography and other practices that dehumanize people and make them seem like objects to be manipulated.

As we seek to build relational bridges across generations, and work to construct a society that esteems its elders, we simultaneously build up homes and communities that are liberated of the threat of abuse or neglect—places of safety, mutual support and love, even as the hairs on our head turn gray and our strength wanes.

World Day of the Sick 2015 will be recognized Feb. 11. Read Pope Francis’ message for the occasion, based on the verse “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame” (Job 29:15), here.

COMING UP: Vietnamese parish community raises $80,000 for storm relief

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About 800 Vietnamese refugees, immigrants and their relatives gathered on Veterans Day at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Parish event center in Wheat Ridge, raising more than $80,000 for survivors of recent storms in Texas, Florida and central Vietnam.

“We dedicate this event to God, and to Mary,” said co-organizer Viet Hua. “We’ve been praying and asking for help, in God’s way, to glorify him in our effort to help those who suffer.”

It was an evening of food, music, dance and auction goods that sold for thousands more than market value in the spirit of exceeding an ambitious $75,000, one-night fundraising goal. Half the money will go to Gulf Coast recovery, and half will go to Vietnam.

Hua, a member of the parish’s Knights of Columbus chapter, said at least 100 men, women and children volunteered to organize and operate the event.

Denver-area businesses with Catholic and Vietnamese owners, managers and employees minimized overhead with donations of food, beverages, services and auction items.

It touches my heart now to help others – from a place where I can exercise my faith, where I can succeed, and where I can gather with community.”

“This is faith, fellowship and compassion at its finest hour,” said Sang Truong, marketing director of Denver’s Beverage World Specialties, which donated cases of Chilean Paso del Sol wine.

Two major hurricanes wreaked havoc along the Gulf of Mexico this year. As of Veterans Day, 12 tropical storms and typhoons had devastated parts of Vietnam.

Typhoon Damrey struck central Vietnam November 4, destroying nearly 3,500 homes, flooding 138,000 homes, killing 123 people and leaving 395,000 Vietnamese in need of assistance.

The scene is painfully familiar to most who head the 1,800 families that comprise Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs. They endured killer typhoons in the 1960s and ’70s, as communists invaded.

“Communists took over in 1975, and these people came here because they love freedom and they want to practice their faith,” said Pastor Louis Ha Pham, who escaped Vietnam in 1975 with 350 other members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-redemptrix religious community. “They want to use their freedom and faith to help others who suffer and lack the advantages of everything we have here.”

Co-organizer Hua barely survived a typhoon that slammed into his South Vietnamese village when he was a young child in the 1960s.

As water filled the family’s bamboo hut, Hua escaped with his mother and siblings to a neighboring residence. Water soon rushed into that hut, forcing Hua and other occupants to punch through the roof.

“We’re yelling for our lives in the middle of the night,” Hua recalled.

South Vietnamese soldiers pulled them from the water and onto a boat, but the suffering had only begun when Hua and his family reached dry ground in the mountains.

“You have no clothes, no food, and no fresh water. You have nothing,” Hua said. “So it touches my heart now to help others – from a place where I can exercise my faith, where I can succeed, and where I can gather with community.”

Hua escaped Vietnam by himself as a sophomore in high school in 1975. Communists had killed his father. They had threatened him and his family with machine guns.

“I remember they had us lined up, and my grandfather stood there telling them to shoot him,” Hua said. “He lifted up his dirty white t-shirt and said ‘shoot me. Just do it.’ I’m glad they didn’t, because that would have really messed me up as a child.”

Hua built his American life around Our Lady of Vietnamese Martyrs, thanking God each day for liberties the communists took from his homeland.

“I thank God, and I thank Americans for the opportunity to be here with resources to help people back home,” Hua said. “We thank you Americans so much for helping the Vietnamese to migrate here and live free.”

Que Truong, lead organizer of the event, said all Hurricane recovery is hard. It is worse in a dictatorship.

Items were auctioned off as part of a fundraiser held at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish on Veteran’s Day to help raise money to provide aid to Vietnam, Florida and Texas, which were all recently hit by storms. In total, the parish raised over $80,000 in one evening. (Photos by Dede Laugesen)

“It is terrible over there,” Truong said. “In south Vietnam, we are not free to do anything. There, most people are poor. It’s a different story here, so we are very eager to help.”

Joining the Catholic parishioners were Vietnamese dancers and others from Denver’s Nhu Lia Buddhist Temple. Vietnamese from a Baptist church also participated.

“This is the first time we have all sat down and had dinner together,” said parish Vice President Hung Vu. “Refugees of any religion know how it is to have nothing – to have empty hands and empty stomachs.”

Vu’s father starved to death after a typhoon devastated the family’s village in 1978. Communists ruled the family’s church. Everyone in Vu’s life suffered deprivation of basic needs.

At age 8, Vu fled while working on a fishing boat.

“The boat next to ours planned to escape,” Vu recounted. “They waved me over. In an instant, without a moment to think about it, I jumped out and swam to their boat. They pulled me up and we started sailing out of the China Sea.”

The narrow, 35-foot vessel contained 97 “boat people” crammed together in fetal position. They quickly ran out of food and water, finally obtaining supplies from a passing ship.

“We wanted freedom of religion, and opportunity, and were willing to die trying to get it,” Vu said. “We have suffered. Now, we are so blessed to be here in the United States with all we have. We are so thankful for the veterans who have defended this way of life. This church is my family, and this family is blessed to help those trying to recover in Texas, Florida and Vietnam.”