On July 25 of last year, the Church celebrated the first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. It was a fitting addition to the life of the Church by Pope Francis, who from the early days of his pontificate has spoken clearly about the great gifts that the elderly bring to family life and society in general.
On one such occasion, during a general audience address in March 2015, Pope Francis said: “The Church cannot and does not want to conform to a mentality of impatience, and much less of indifference and contempt, toward old age. We must reawaken the collective sense of gratitude, of appreciation, of hospitality, which makes the elder feel like a living part of his community. Our elders are men and women, fathers and mothers, who came before us on our own road, in our own house, in our daily battle for a worthy life. They are men and women from whom we have received so much. The elder is not an alien. We are that elder: in the near or far future, but inevitably, even if we don’t think it. And if we don’t learn how to treat the elder better, that is how we will be treated.”
How true. Old age, if we are fortunate, comes for us all. How will we want to be treated when our time comes?
For the second time in less than a year, our family lost someone special. On St. Patrick’s Day, my husband Michael’s grandmother, Betty, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, passed away after a year and a half in a memory care facility. Her deterioration was both mental and physical, and she spent time in three different nursing homes as her decline continued. For much of that time, with COVID in control, we were unable to visit her in person, save for through a window — visits that sometimes only literally lasted seconds because it was too cold for her. Thankfully, she had some wonderful nurses who would call us regularly on video chat, and Nanny, whose ability to speak was declining, at least would be able to hear us talking to her and see the kids running around and waving.
When she was moved to the third facility, this one very close to Michael’s parents’ home, health restrictions were starting to loosen, and visitors were permitted under certain conditions. Michael went as frequently as he could, given the two-hour drive, but Michael’s father, Bob, went to visit his mother-in-law nearly every day. Those were not easy visits, and his devotion was truly remarkable and yet, for him, unsurprising.
When Nanny died on March 17, Michael and both of his parents were at her side, and she passed from this life as Michael prayed the Church’s prayers for the dying for the second time, during the Litany of Saints in particular. She had been anointed just the day before. It was as peaceful a death as one could hope for. Michael told me later that he just wanted to do right by the woman who had meant so much to him, and who had witnessed the Faith so well to him while he was growing up.
I half-joked with Michael that I hope I die before him, because I need him right by my side praying me from this world into, God-willing, the eternal life He has prepared for us. But while I was looking for a smile, I was also perfectly serious. When your time is up, how would you want to exit this world?
“The elder is not an alien.” Do we live with this truth in our hearts? Old age, if we are fortunate, comes for us all. How will we want to be treated when our time comes?
Gretchen R. Crowe is editorial director for periodicals at OSV. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.
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