Senectus ipsa est morbus - Old age is itself an illness. Thus wrote Publius Terenzius Afer, who was born at Carthage, in the second century before Christ. Ironically, he who wrote about the handicaps and hurdles that the elderly must overcome because of their disability and deprivation, died at the early age of twenty six! Those words came alive when I visited a Home for the Elderly in Special Care some days back.
The residents were either bed ridden or room bound. They lived in rooms that had all the amenities they needed to be able to be helped. But they were alone – the Home itself being located, in scenic surroundings for sure, but far out of city precincts for easy or frequent access. Some of the residents were groaning and moaning with pain; others were talking aloud to themselves having no one to talk or listen to; still others were calling out for help. And still others, so glassy eyed, looked blankly at the ceiling. I felt so helpless and handicapped myself unable to do anything for them. And as I left that Home, I was so sick, sad and sorry.
On my way home and later I continued to pray for them. The best I could do was to commend them to the Lord. Does He not know each one of us by name? Does He not know our story, our history and our mystery? I have always had great reverence for the elderly. I remember once while travelling on a crowded bus in Rome on my way home back from work at the Pontifical Council for Culture, I noticed an elderly lady board. She had to stand as the bus was packed. I approached her and with some measure of clerical chivalry offered her the seat I was occupying. To my utter embarrassment and the amusement of other passengers, she retorted: “You need it more than I do!” and preferred to stand instead. The elderly have the grace of age and the gift of wit and wisdom. Living as we do in a culture of use and dispose, we run the risk of writing off the elderly as useless, if not a burden that we must perforce bear.
On my Monday visits to the elderly and the housebound in the parish, I make it a point to seek their blessing before I leave. They do it with such solemnity and sacredness. One of them, a near nonagenarian, literally imposes his hands on my head and prays: “Bless this soldier with your help, Lord. And give him the right words to spread your message and do your work!” This brings back memories of my sacerdotal ordination when the ordaining prelate and the concelebrating priests laid their hands on me and I was anointed God’s priest for ever, sent on a mission.
The elderly are useful because they seem useless. Their worth is not in what they have achieved or what they now own but rather in who they are. What life apparently loses in use, it gains in meaning by not being used. I recall a Taoist parable. A carpenter and his apprentice once went for a walk in a forest where they came across a very huge old oak tree, very old and very gnarled and very ugly. The carpenter asked the apprentice: “Do you know why this tree is so big and so old?” The apprentice replied: “No…Why?” The carpenter answered: “Because it is useless. If it were useful, it would have been cut down, sawed up and used for beds, tables, chairs and wardrobes. But because it is useless, it has been allowed to grow. That is why it is so big and strong now that you can rest in its shadow.” When the value of the tree became the tree itself, and not what it could be used for, it was free to grow towards the light and become great. Must we not allow persons to grow for themselves like that old oak and in their old age become useful for those who need to seek shelter in the wealth of their wisdom?
As I returned home that night and retired to bed I recalled what Terenzius had said. And I quietly changed it to Senectus ipsa est salus! Old age is itself health! And with that I fell asleep commending those sick and elderly residents of that Home into God’s safe and strong hands!