People today live longer and enjoy better health than in the past. They are also able to cultivate interests made possible by higher levels of education. No longer is old age synonymous with dependence on others or a diminished quality of life. But all this seems not enough to dislodge a negative image of old age or encourage a positive acceptance of a period of life in which many of our contemporaries see nothing but an unavoidable and burdensome decline.
The perception of old age as a period of decline, in which human and social inadequacy is taken for granted, is in fact very widespread today. But this is a stereotype. It does not take account of a condition that is in practice far more diversified, because older people are not a homogeneous human group and old age is experienced in very different ways. There are those older people who are capable of grasping the significance that old age has in the context of human existence, and who confront it not only with serenity and dignity, but as a time of life which offers them new opportunities for growth and commitment. But there are others – more numerous in our own day – to whom old age is a traumatic experience, and who react to their own ageing with attitudes ranging from passive resignation to rebellion, rejection, and despair. They are persons who become locked into themselves and self-marginalized, thus accelerating the process of their own physical and mental deterioration.
It may thus be affirmed that the aspects of the third and fourth ages are as manifold and varied as older people themselves, and that each of us prepares for old age, and the way we experience it, in the course of our own life. In this sense, old age grows with us. And the quality of our old age will especially depend on our capacity to grasp its meaning and appreciate its value both at the purely human level and at the level of faith. We therefore need to situate old age in the context of a precise providential scheme of God who is love. We need to accept it as a stage in the journey by which Christ leads us to the Father’s house (cf. John 14:2). Only in the light of the faith, strengthened by the hope which does not deceive (cf. Romans 5:5), shall we be able to accept old age in a truly Christian way both as a gift and a task. That is the secret of the youthfulness of spirit, which we can continue to cultivate in spite of the passing of years. Linda, a woman who lived to the age of 106, left us a magnificent testimony of this. On her 101st birthday, she confided to a friend: “I’m now 102 years old, but I’m strong, you know. Physically I have some disabilities, but spiritually there is nothing I can’t do. I don’t let physical impediments stand in the way, I pay no attention to them. I don’t suffer old age, because I ignore it: it goes ahead on its own, but I pay no heed to it. The only way to live well in old age is to live it in God.”
To correct the current, largely negative image of old age is therefore a cultural and educational task which ought to involve all generations. We have a responsibility towards older people today: we need to help them to grasp the sense of their age, to appreciate its resources, and to overcome the temptation to reject it, and so succumb to self-isolation, resignation, and a feeling of uselessness and despair. We also have a responsibility towards future generations: that of preparing a human, social, and spiritual context in which each person may live this period of life with dignity and fullness.
In his message to the UN’s World Assembly on Ageing, Pope John Paul II affirmed: “Life is a gift of God to man who is created out of love in the image and likeness of God. This understanding of the sacred dignity of the human person leads to the appreciation of every stage of life. It is a question of consistency and justice. It is impossible to truly value the life of an older person if the life of a child is not valued from the moment of its conception. No one knows where we might arrive, if life is no longer respected as something inalienable and sacred.”
The multi-generational society we aspire to shall only become an enduring reality if it be based on respect for life in all its phases. The presence of so many older persons in the modern world needs to be recognized as a gift, a new human and spiritual potential for enrichment. It is a sign of the times which, if fully accepted and understood, may help contemporary men and women to rediscover the fundamental meaning of life, which far transcends the purely contingent meanings attributed to it by market forces, by the State, and by the prevailing mentality.
The contribution that older people, by their experience, can make to the process of making our society and culture more human is particularly valuable. It needs to be encouraged by fostering what might be termed the charisms proper to old age, namely:
Disinterestedness. The prevailing culture of our time measures the value of our actions according to criteria of efficiency and material success, which ignore the dimension of disinterestedness: of giving something, or giving ourselves, without any thought of a return. Older people, who have time on their hands, may recall the attention of an over-busy society to the need to break down the barriers of an indifference that debases, discourages and stifles altruistic impulses.
Memory. The younger generations are losing a sense of history and consequently the sense of their own identity. A society that minimizes the sense of history fails in its responsibility to educate young people. A society that ignores the past more easily runs the risk of repeating its errors. The loss of an historical sense is also attributable to a system of life that has marginalized and isolated older people, and that hampers dialogue between the generations.
Experience. Today we live in a world in which the responses of science and technology seem to have supplanted the value of the experience accumulated by older people in the course of their whole lives. This kind of cultural barrier should not discourage people of the third and fourth ages, since they still have a lot to say to the young generations and to share with them.
Interdependence. No man is an island. But growing individualism and self-seeking are obscuring this truth. Older people, in their search for companionship, challenge a society in which the weaker are often abandoned; they draw attention to the social nature of man and to the need to repair the fabric of interpersonal and social relationships.
A more complete vision of life. Our life is dominated by haste, by agitation, and frequently by neurosis. It is a distracted life, a life in which the fundamental questions about the vocation, dignity, and destiny of man are forgotten. The third age is also the age of simplicity and contemplation. The affective, moral, and religious values embodied by older people are an indispensable resource for fostering the harmony of society, of the family, and of the individual. These values include a sense of responsibility, faith in God, friendship, disinterest in power, prudence, patience, wisdom, and a deep inner conviction of the need to respect the creation and foster peace. Older people understand the superiority of “being” over “having.” Human societies would be better if they learnt to benefit from the charisms of old age.