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: Celebrate and support the sacred gift of life

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Editor’s Note: This column is adapted from Archbishop Aquila’s remarks to the 2018 Celebrate Life March, which took place on January 13th in front of the Colorado State Capitol building.

As we gather today to celebrate life, we must remember three things: 1) life is a gift, 2) life is sacred, and 3) rebuilding a culture of life requires joy.

We are here today to celebrate our joy over the gift of life. Every minute and every day we live presents us with an abundance of gifts that seem mundane and are often overlooked: our health, the gift of creation, or something as simple as having food on our plates. Above all, we should give thanks for the gift of life!

As people involved in protecting life at every stage, the challenge we face is not just one of providing resources to mothers and fathers in need or ensuring people battling a terminal illness have good palliative care. Our challenge is to also communicate to them that they are loved, that their unborn child or their own lives are gifts, no matter the circumstances.

Many of us fought in 2016 to prevent doctor-assisted suicide from becoming legal in Colorado, and one person who helped in that effort was a courageous man named J.J. Hanson. J.J. was a Marine veteran and father of two young children who was working for a real estate investment firm in Florida when he found out he had glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer. His doctors told him that it was a very aggressive cancer that meant he only had four months to live.

Despite his odds, J.J. resolved to fight. His motto was: “Every single day is a gift, and we can’t let that go.” What’s even more remarkable is the fact that J.J. dedicated his time and energy to fighting the legalization of assisted suicide around the country, all while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments. There was hardly a speaking engagement or trip to testify before a legislature that J.J. turned down. His conviction that life was a gift propelled him to defend that gift however he could. As pro-life people, we need to have that same conviction.

Just about two weeks ago, on December 30th, J.J. was called home to the Father – three years beyond what doctors told him to expect. St. Anthony of Padua church in upstate New York, where his funeral was held, was filled with people who paid tribute to how J.J. inspired them to embrace every moment of life, no matter its difficulties as a gift, not something to be thrown away.

All of us are called to embrace life as J.J. did, and in doing so we will help recover the culture of life that is being neglected or forgotten as people cast God and truth aside.

I have said that life is a gift, and while that is true, it’s more than that. Life is also sacred. Life is sacred because it comes from God, the God who is love and who has loved us first. Our lives are also sacred because our beings are made in God’s image and likeness.

We are called to participate in the love of God and to see that every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death, is invited into relationship with God. We are called to ensure that life is set aside for God, that it is honored and recognized as sacred.

The struggle for so many today is that they do not even believe in a god; their only god is themselves. They truly do not believe in the God who is love. And because of this limited worldview, a person’s life can lose its value if their “quality of life” declines.

In the words of Pope Francis to participants in the 2013 Day for Life, “All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

When Jesus speaks about the Judgement of the Nations in Matthew 25, he tells us that life is always sacred by saying that when we love the weak and vulnerable, we are loving him.

The more that we can love the sacred gift of life and celebrate it with joy, the more we will contribute to building a true culture of life in the U.S.

A wonderful example of concretely loving the sacred gift of life is a story I recently heard about a 15-year-old Colorado teenager named Missy, who showed up with her parents at an abortion clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Missy was a sophomore in high school and was in her second trimester of pregnancy. As they approached the clinic, some pro-life volunteers who were parked nearby in a mobile crisis pregnancy van saw them and invited them inside. The volunteers learned that Missy wanted to complete high school and that this desire was pushing her to consider an abortion. One of the volunteers told Missy about how she was faced with the same choice as a teen and chose to keep her child. “It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing,” she reassured Missy.

Missy also worried about the father of the child not being around, to which her dad responded by taking her hand and saying, “I’ll be that man in your child’s life.”

This kind of accompaniment and willingness to heroically support the gift of life is vitally important to forming a culture that welcomes the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the dying as a gift.

Building a culture of life begins by first receiving the love of the Father, who loves each of us as his sons and daughters. He never abandons us, even though we might abandon him or reject his love.

A culture of life grows when we share his love with others, helping them to embrace life as a gift and a joy, rather than a burden.

Life is a gift, it is sacred and our celebration of the joy of life helps build a culture of life.

I encourage you to be those who are unafraid to give witness to life. Be not afraid to give witness to life. Even though people might ridicule you, yell at you, or reject you, know that Jesus experienced it all so that you might have life, and life abundantly.

May God bless you and help you celebrate life in 2018!