In this time of pandemic, the elderly and senior citizens of our country have suffered much. In the initial stages of lockdown, we were worried for them and were anxious to protect them from the virus and its potentially fatal consequences given that many of them had underlying health conditions. The average age of those dying from COVID-19 was high. This meant ‘cocooning’ for those over 70 as we tried to shield them from the disease. For weeks there was reduced direct contact between elderly people and their families. There were no family gatherings, hugs from children and grandchildren. This was even harder for those who were single, widowed or separated. It meant greatly reduced social interaction and more time alone. There was also the deprivation of religious and spiritual supports for many who valued those supports enormously. For people who had taken part in the Eucharist every Sunday of their lives and even every day, the sudden deprivation of the sacraments was a traumatic experience that must not be understated. For those who had lost friends through death, attending their funerals and a proper goodbye was not possible.
For the elderly in nursing homes, life became even more difficult. No more visitors, meaning more long hours, sitting or lying with all day to think. Many of them died in nursing homes without all of their family members present, in some cases saying goodbye to loved ones via tablets and smartphones or through a window. And while restrictions have been eased in the wider community, many of the more severe restrictions are still in place in hospitals and nursing homes where a high concentration of vulnerable elderly are still cared for.
In light of these hardships, there is a very strong case for a greater awareness in the Church and society of the plight of our senior citizens. To the great credit of our medical care staff in hospitals and nursing homes, they are receiving the best possible protection from COVID-19 and the necessary medical and nursing care. My concern is that they are dying, not from the coronavirus, but from loneliness and isolation. This is certainly not the fault of the staff of the hospitals and nursing homes. But the truth is that the staff don’t have the time to sit there with them, listen to them and share the warmth of human company and the closeness of a friend.
There are a number of factors which make the elderly vulnerable in our culture, even before COVID-19 arrived. As the number of older people rises and as we try to keep pace with the increase in life-expectancy, it is imperative to ‘promote a widespread attitude of acceptance and appreciation of the elderly, and not relegate them to the fringes’ (St Pope John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, 1999). In an age that can define one’s worth by what one can do, there is a real danger of older people feeling pushed aside with a loss of purpose and value. When this happens, it gives rise to a mentality ‘which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity. Such an attitude frequently leads to contempt for the later years of life while older people themselves are led to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile’ (JP II, Letter to the Elderly).
In more recent times, Pope Francis recalls that ‘the current socio-cultural context is gradually eroding the awareness of what makes human life precious. In fact, it is increasingly valued on the basis of its efficiency and utility, to the point of considering as discarded lives or unworthy lives those who do not meet this criterion’. This teaching comes from the recently published document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled ‘Samaritanus Bonus…The Good Samaritan’. The document speaks of the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life but also includes care for the elderly and vulnerable. It reminds us that ‘we need to show care for all life and for the life of everyone’; ‘It is proper for the Church to accompany with mercy the weakest in their journey of suffering’. Quoting Pope Francis, the document speaks of the importance of us having ‘a contemplative gaze that beholds in one’s own existence and that of others a unique and unrepeatable wonder, received and welcomed as a gift’. Only the heart that feels the suffering of others can really see what they truly need. ‘A heart that sees is central to the program of the good Samaritan. He teaches that it is necessary to convert the gaze of the heart, because many times the beholder does not see. Why? Because compassion is lacking’.
It is a sad irony that at a time when the elderly are suffering most and feeling dispensable, there is a Bill passing through the Dail that will legislate for assisted suicide. Shockingly, the Bill was introduced during Palliative Care Week, which is a programme of events celebrating the work of palliative care teams across the country who help terminally ill patients live life well. Tellingly, the strongest opposition to the Bill has come from Palliative Care and Geriatric Medicine Consultants. No matter how it is dressed up, this Bill will be a further erosion of the dignity of human life and a devaluing of the lives of the elderly and sick.
In every single jurisdiction in which euthanasia/assisted suicide has been introduced, the number of people dying in this way has increased exponentially over time. In addition to the sheer numbers, these regimes have catastrophic consequences for older people and people with disabilities.
For many, the choice to die becomes the duty to die, because they feel like a burden on their families and carers.
At a time when we should explore creative ways of supporting older and terminally ill citizens better within the confines of COVID-19, all we seem to be showing them is the exit door. What they really need is hope, meaning and love, not euthanasia. In the words of ‘Samaritanus Bonus’:
‘Experience confirms that the pleas of gravely ill people who sometimes ask for death are not to be understood as implying a true desire for euthanasia; in fact, it is almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love. What a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love, the human and supernatural warmth with which sick persons can and ought to be surrounded by all those close to him or her, parents and children, doctors and nurses. A sick person, surrounded by a loving human and Christian presence, can overcome all forms of depression and need not succumb to the anguish of loneliness and abandonment to suffering and death’.
What we need to discuss as a Church and a nation is how we can surround our senior citizens with that support, love and human warmth that revives their dignity and sense of value. This we need to do at a time when it is not possible in ways we have done before.
To conclude this article but to open the conversation. The pagan philosopher Cicero once wrote that ‘The burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the young’. It is respect and love that the elderly need right now, more than ever. We acknowledge all they have been through in the last few months and as they enter the autumn and winter of their lives. May they never feel forgotten, abandoned or devalued. In the words of Scripture, let us ‘Rise in the presence of one with grey hair; honour the person of the elderly’ Lev. 19:32).
Fr Billy Swan