By Francesca Merlo
Tuesday morning saw three prominent speakers presenting the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life's new Document entitled "OLD AGE: OUR FUTURE - The elderly after the pandemic".
Introducing the panel, Christiane Murray, Vice Director of the Holy See Press Office, noted that the theme of old age is one that Pope Francis has highlighted throughout the entirety of his pontificate, especially in the troubling times of coronavirus.
The Church points to a dawn of new time
Opening the discussions was Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He noted that with this document, “the Academy for Life intends to underline the urgency of a new attention to elderly people." He explained that "the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed this inability of contemporary society to take proper care of its elderly". This, he continued, truly brings to light that "throwaway culture" of which Pope Francis speaks so often, which in this case has caused "countless tragedies among the elderly". Archbishop Paglia noted that all around the world, those who have been affected most by this pandemic are the elderly. "To date, there is talk of more than two million and three hundred thousand elderly people who have died from Covid-19, the majority of whom were over 75. A real 'massacre of the elderly'", he added. This, he continued, "prevents the question of caring for the elderly from being dismissed with the immediate search for scapegoats, for individual culprits". "On the other hand", he said, "a guilty and suspicious silence would be incomprehensible".
In light of this, said Archbishop Paglia, "it is necessary to globally rethink society's closeness to the elderly". He noted that "Pope Francis recalled that we won’t emerge from the pandemic as we were before": we will be either better or worse. "This depends on us and on how we start building our future and this document "aims to help build a new future for our elderly."
The responsilility of the Church is to "take on a prophetic vocation pointing to the dawn of a new time". Concluding his remarks, Archbishop Paglia noted that "the level of civilisation of an era is measured by the way we treat those who are weaker and more fragile. The death and suffering of the oldest cannot fail to be a call to do better, to do differently, to do more. We owe it to our children, to those who are young and at the beginning of life".
Without our elders we risk no memory
Following Archbishop Paglia was Fr Bruno Marie Duffé, Secretary of the Vatican's Dicastery for Integral Human Development.
Fr Duffé recalls the testimony of a young person in the Holy Father's Apostolic Exhortation Christus vivit, following the Synod of Bishops on young people, vocation and discernment. This young man speaks of the Church as a “canoe, in which the elders help keep the course by interpreting the position of the stars and the young people row hard by imagining what awaits them further on” (Cristus vivit, 201).
Fr Duffé notes that this comparison can also be applied to society. "If", he says, "as we progress along the often tumultuous river of our history, we lose the advice of our elders, we risk losing our memory. And by losing memory, we also lose hope. The elderly are our memory and, consequently, they are, paradoxically, our hope", he said.
"Dreaming and tenderness: that's what it's all about", he said. "If the elderly continue to dream, the younger can continue to invent. If the older person's gaze gently encourages the younger person's projects, both will live in the hope that overcomes fears. The old man, after all, has only one thing to do: to offer what he has discovered about life, so that the child still - and always - experiences the desire to discover and invent life".
Concluding his presentation, Fr Duffeé asks, "What will be left of this terrible experience of a disease that has affected all ages and all peoples?" He replies that some people, after having experienced the suffering of separation "relearn within the family the bond of listening and caring between generations". Others, he continues, "keep within themselves, in intimate silence and with sadness, a glance and the regret of not having spoken with those who have left". However all of us, he concludes "offer us their memory, and in the treasure of memory there is indeed faith, received and offered: that taste of eternal life that has already begun".
Now is our chance
The last to speak was Professor Etsuo Akiba, from Toyama University in Japan who spoke of some of the realities surrounding Covid in the country.
She noted that Japanese media "don't report the actual condition of the deaths of elderly, the personal episode or where and how they died". She described the "indifference of the public to the deaths of elderly" and the "serious discrimination against infectious disease patients" as well as "the division of generations due to the nuclearisation of the family after WWII."
The elder generation move to the suburbs and live in the apartment designed for the elderly independently of their children, she said. "Their biggest fear is agnosia, incapability of cognition" and their trend is to make the 'Ending Note' [a notebook in which someone can write down important records and messages] rejecting terminal medicine before they lost their ability of self-determination", she said.
Finally, Professor Akiba noted that the Japanese need to create the cognitive moral community as well as the regional community. In order to do this, she said, "we have to overcome our trauma" and "the loss of Japanese common ethics rooted in State Shintoism before World War II... The present World War against Covid-19 is a rare chance for us to escape from an island country's seclusive mentality and to get the cosmopolitan perspective".