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How to see the elderly as family treasures

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Befriending an older person adds depth and richness to your life.

There are 700 million people in the world who are over 60 years old—and there will be 2 billion of them by 2050. Sadly, Pope Francis observes, older generations are being marginalized in our society, which idolizes youth.

In a homily on November 19, 2013, the pontiff said, “We live in a time when the elderly don’t count. It’s awful to say, but they are discarded because they’re a nuisance to us … And yet, the elderly are the bearers of history, of doctrine, and of faith, and they leave them to us as an inheritance. They are like a good aged wine; that is, they bear within them the strength to give us a noble heritage.”

Today’s “throw-away culture,” as Pope Francis calls it, “says, ‘You’re old. Go away.’ Yes, you’re old, but you have many things to say to us, to tell us, about history, culture, life, values … We must not allow this throw-away culture to persist. Rather, there must always be a culture of integration.”

Marie de Hennezel, who writes on the subject of old age and works with an association to help the elderly play a more active role in society, talked to Aleteia about how those who are getting older can enrich society.

Why is it that the elderly are not always perceived as a treasure?

We have such a bad image of old age! Age is an enemy! It’s forbidden to get old, because old age is seen only as a decrease, a loss … And yet, when I lead my seminars on “aging well,” I ask participants to bring a picture of an elderly person they know who makes them want to age, and everyone always has a model of a very old person they consider a treasure!

What is the unique role of the elderly?

I am convinced that old age is given us so we can travel towards our interior natures, and search deep within ourselves for the treasures unexplored in our youth. Yes, old age is for the inner self! This inner journey doesn’t mean turning in on oneself, but going to draw from our inner depth, revisiting our life, discovering its common thread …

So you’re saying the elderly are great contemplatives?

I have met very simple people who exemplify this: old women, widows of fishermen, who ask to go to places they have known to watch the sunset. They’ve become contemplative. They have an inner joy, and they radiate this joy around them.

Society must change its view of our elders. It’s a mistake to expect them to act like young people! They contribute something different, and it is this “other thing” that society is invited to discover.

Would you say our elders are treasures because they have a lot to pass on?

At the senior residences where I lead discussion groups on “The Adventure of Aging,” the elderly express themselves freely. They share their interesting and fruitful experiences. They continue to live, to desire, to want to learn, to have new experiences, and they’re happy! It’s extraordinary! They also have a very rich inner life and are very wise.

I see that the inter-generational link is still there, but it has shifted. The transmission is always from one generation to the next, but not necessarily within families. The staff who work closely with the elderly tell me, “We learn so much from the elderly!” In that, they are treasures.

How can we concretely live this relationship?

The people of my generation—the “boomers”—are thinking about this question because we want to make our old age a happy, fruitful, and interesting experience. Above all, we want to be treasures for society!

The generations before us lived their old age following models where you were still living with your family, but it’s not like that anymore. One of my children lives abroad, and I know he won’t be around me in my old age! But with our current means of communication (emails, text messaging, video calls), elderly people can transmit their values even if their loved ones aren’t physically present!

What would you advise us to do as a family to ensure that our elders are treated like treasures?

Young people and adults are busy with their daily lives. That’s normal, and they won’t change in a snap of the fingers. Telling your children or grandchildren, “You must go and see them, you must not leave them alone,” is, of course, important—just like family celebrations, traditions, and regularly scheduled visits. Moreover, people who are getting older can invite family to lunch or to visit a museum.

The elderly aren’t necessarily asking the young to wait on them: They just want others to take an interest in them and ask them simple questions: “What’s your perspective on things? What are you interested in?” The best way to accompany the elderly is to tell them “You can make a difference yourself!”

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