AGING WELL TODAY (3) – Treating the elderly with respect

– Fausto Gomez OP

In some cultures, the elderly are generally treated with a special respect and even reverence. Likewise in the Bible. Moses says to the people: “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old” (Lev 19:32). 

In our world that worships youth, some – or many – elderly are not treated well, especially in the West.


Every human person possesses human dignity, that is, unique perfection, plenitude and value. Human dignity, as essential or constitutive dignity, is equal in all human beings. Every human being – born or unborn, man or woman, young or old, healthy or sick, black or white, Filipino or Spaniard – is considered a human person. He or she is equal to all other human persons. She or he ought not to be treated as an object, but as a subject, not as a means but as an end, not as it but as he/she (a relation of justice), or better, as thou or you (a relation of love).

For the Christian, every human being is the image and likeness of God. The Holy Spirit tells us that God is the Father of Jesus – and our Father: Our Father! Hence, the highest human dignity of the person is found in union with God, through Christ, in the Spirit.

All human beings possess, essentially, the same human dignity and therefore deserve unconditional respect. Among them, however, the weak ought to be respected in a special way. A study published by The Lancet Global Health calculated that at the beginning of 2017, one of every six persons of advanced age suffered a certain type of ill treatment in the whole world, which means that about 141 million are affected (Laura Tardón). In our world, some people do not respect the elderly and practice ageism, that is, discrimination against the elderly just because they are senior citizens.


How is the Church treating the elderly? In a comic strip (Vida Nueva), author Quique puts these words in the mouth of Tico, his main character, to an old couple: “The Church shows concern for children, for the young.… They have a place….” Then Tico asks the old couple: “Do you have a place in the Church?” The old couple answers: “Yes, when we die.” In most local churches throughout the world, the elderly have a place in the Church. In many countries, senior citizens participate in apostolic activities – in evangelization – in a particular way through the Catholic Association of the Elderly, namely, Ascending Life.

It is important to underline that the elderly do not compete with the young. Old and young people have the same dignity. To say, for instance, that the young must replace the old just because they are old is a sign of “ageism,” which means discriminating against senior citizens. There is today, as we all know, a certain worship for the young, and a sort of ephebocracy (government by the young). Ben Sirach advises: “Do not disdain one who is old, for some of us are also growing old” (Sir 8:6). I remember the wise words of Cicero: “Great deeds are not done by strength, or speed, or physique. They are the products of thought, and character, and judgment. And far from diminishing, such qualities increase with age.”

In previous generations the young were often discriminated against by reason of their age: “he or she is too young.” Unfortunately, this negative appreciation seems to still be true today in some cultures, societies, institutions, politics, and businesses.

Pope Francis has repeated that the Church ought to listen to the young and the old to be able to build up intergenerational harmony. Our elderly are not really a burden to the community but “an example of connections between generations, a resource for the well-being of the family,” “an important school of life, capable of transmitting values and traditions” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church).

Our main task towards the elderly in our community is accompaniment, which entails not abandoning them, but walking with them, letting them do what they can do, listening to what they have to say – even when they repeat the same stories – and sustaining their hope in God.

We are aware of the needs that old persons have in our communities: need of security, need of self-esteem, need of love and affection, need of having or finding a meaning to his/her old age and to suffering and death, their need of hope and of God.


Our duty with suffering humanity, with the suffering elderly in particular is empathetic solidarity: providing to our suffering brothers and sisters, a “warm heart.”  This empathetic solidarity is contrary to the utilitarianism or pragmatism present in some segments of our society that seem to consider the older persons as useless burdens. Words to ponder: “How could they (the elderly) not feel guilty for still being here, for costing so much, and for being useless?” (Eric Fuchs). “How many times they are thrown away with attitudes of abandonment that are authentic hidden euthanasia” (Pope Francis).

Euthanasia is wrongly called “mercy killing”: How may killing a human being, any human being, be merciful? Is it merciless? On one hand, euthanasia, which shortens life directly, does not respect the right of the elderly – or of any other human being – to life. On the other hand – we must add – futile, or extremely burdensome treatment might not respect the life – or dying – of the elderly when the approaching time to go is unduly and uselessly delayed or prolonged.

We are asked by our humanity and our faith to be in solidarity with the elderly, to be at the side of those who are sick in a nonjudgmental, non-paternalistic but respectful attitude. We have to try to understand that when they are terminally ill or near their end, they may go through the five psychological stages pointed out by the late Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The word of God and Christian tradition teach constantly that the afflicted, the poor are to be treated with preferential care and love. Our faith and our tradition teach us that to be weak is a sufficient title to special respect and protection. Who are the weak today?  They are, among others, unborn and born children, terminal patients, the disabled, the marginalized, women and the elderly. These deserve a preferential love. The old men and women of our communities must be given – beside the needed healthcare services – utmost respect and compassionate love. It is important to underline this: all old members of our communities must be respected, even – and more so – those who are wheeled-chaired or bed-ridden, or unconscious.

We value the human person, our brother or sister not only when he or she does things in and for the community. Words to ponder: “Is the human being valued only by reason of what he contributes to the community? In the Kingdom of God, is there such a thing as absolute uselessness or also the useless contribute something? “Even the unconscious person speaks to us of God – a God who loves us and asks us that we love the disable person: loving him or her – the ‘useless’ person – is truly loving God” (P. Manuel Guillén). 

It is noteworthy to add that the elderly evangelize with their silent presence. They are a symbol of human life, a powerful symbol of our finitude, fragility and dependence. They are for all others an unmistakable sign of the end of this life – of death.

In our next and final column, we shall face the question: How are we growing older?

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