Pontifex Says: Neglecting the Elderly = Covert Euthanasia. The Justice Issue We Ignore.

It was not without reason my friend John rebelled at the thought of going into a nursing home: the majority (60%) of nursing home residents have no visitors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that more than 50% of nursing home residents have no close relatives and an incredible 46% have no living children. When you compound those numbers with the astounding estimate that as many as nine out of 10 U.S. nursing homes are understaffed (and many of those staff are underpaid), you can begin to see why the institutions are dreaded and feared–and why many people quickly decline when they enter them.

When he was a cardinal, Pope Francis remarked that ignoring the elderly amounts to “covert euthanasia.” We’re guilty of this by the simple fact that Pope Francis’ comments on World Youth Day about women and the gay community received widespread media attention, while these remarks merited little to no attention whatsoever:

“A people has a future if [they] go forward with both elements: with the young, who have the strength, and things move forward because they do the carrying, and with the elderly, because they are the ones who give life’s wisdom. […] We do the elderly an injustice. We set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us.”

My friend John played the saxophone in multi-racial jazz bands in New York City in the 1930s and served his community as a volunteer firefighter for 50 years without once missing a meeting. He was similarly faithful as a church member and Sunday school teacher, and the consummate family man. His hair turned prematurely white after he used his bayonet to gently probe the sands of Iwo Jima for hidden explosives to deactivate. After being shot, he spent more than two years in military hospitals battling infection and fighting to keep his life and his leg. When I was a ballet-obsessed 10-year-old, he built me my very own barre out of repurposed scraps.

What could a young evangelical have taught him about cultural engagement, creativity, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, generosity, thrift, courage, or suffering? What young evangelical could not have failed to learn a thing or two from his long and remarkably full life?

I certainly did.

As the ranks of older Americans continue to swell, we who are young must reject the cultural narratives equating aging with decline and increasing irrelevance. We must resist the falsehood that it’s our generation that really “gets” it and realize how much older people have to teach us.

And we must remember to call and visit the older people in our lives—bringing coffee and compassion, leaving behind the condescension—remembering they were once as young as we, and that, if God wills, we will one day be as old as they.

{from my first–and recent–contribution to Q Ideas. Please click through to read it all.}

What Not To Do When There’s Nothing Much You Can Do

I don’t like goodbyes.

For years, when my mother and I are about to say goodbye–when the visit is drawing to a close, say, or one of us (why is it always me?) is about to take off on a new adventure–we have picked inane fights with one another.

We are quite expert at inane arguments. My dad once happened upon us in the kitchen, debating passionately, even Talmudically about seltzer.

Yes. Sparkling water. Seltzer. Fighting about it. With religious fervor. I don’t recall the specifics, just that my dad walked in and surveyed the scene silently, and then pointed out, very calmly:

“You’re arguing. About seltzer.”

The truth is that we are the best of friends, and saying goodbye is hard, and for whatever neurotic reason, it’s feels easier to pretend that we are furious at each other and can’t wait to get rid of the other than it is just to CRY and say I’ll miss you.

Is it possible that something similar happens when we are faced with old age or incurable disease?

In response to Monday’s post, one of my friends commented on the “manufactured controversies” that whip evangelicals into frenzies online, noting (as I did) that we are often very selective in what we get outraged over:

Bikinis? YES!

Shackling laboring inmates? NO!

‘Biblical’ gender roles? YES!

Unjust wages? NO!

Something dumb that John Piper just said? YES YES YES!

The same commenter noted:

Another social injustice [that’s] invisible to Facebook is our casual neglect of the elderly.


I was talking to a friend recently who was off to see visit someone who was very, very ill. The friend mentioned feeling a bit nervous–which I think is really normal. Hospitals and nursing homes and hospices are not, generally speaking, cheery places, and it is awful to see people we once knew in their strength and vigor laid waste by old age or disease.

It’s easier push them from our minds, be upset about other things, forget that they exist, or try to fix them than it is just to BE WITH the old and the dying.

One of my favorite cartoons from the Dad archives sums this up well:

echinaceaWhen there’s nothing more to be done, it feels easier to just to stay away, or to pick a fight within ourselves that justifies our staying away:

“It makes me feel sad to see her in that condition.”

“He probably doesn’t even know I’m there.”

I’m no expert at any of this. I will admit that I dragged myself to the nursing home sometimes to visit Mr. and Mrs. S.: it is all so depressing. Sometimes there were things to do: potted plants to be watered, eyeglasses to be found and cleaned, shoes to be tied and nail polish to be applied, not to mention meals to be eaten and coffee to be drunk.

At the end, though, there is very little to do except simply to be. You resist the urge to have little seltzer arguments within yourself and just sit there for a long goodbye.

But I think that something similar is true for many of us with our everyday little traumas. We would like to escape the pain of them by bickering over seltzer; to pretend that the natural remedy du jour is just waiting to fix what ails us; to find a way to avert our eyes even from what is happening right before them.

I’ve just finished writing several different pieces about David Rakoff’s posthumously published novel-in-verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which is a remarkable book because it sugarcoats nothing and is much concerned with death and the various kinds of small torments we humans inflict on each other, and yet, at the same time, is one of the most hopeful and life-affirming books I’ve read in ages.

What to do when there’s nothing much you can do?

Don’t bicker. Don’t try to fix. Don’t bring echinacea.

Just bring a little beauty, and a little kindness.