One of the signs of our times is the disappearance of many generational families living together. We can observe less and less respect shown to the elderly whose value is defined on the amount of their retirement allowances, potential legacy or their usefulness. They are often doomed to loneliness although they have their own families. Is it not a big mistake? Do parents and grandparents become valueless at some point? But maybe passing and old age have sense. Or one can even keep your youth despite old age? Can young people help doing that? If yes, it is worth reflecting in what way.
A year ago, just before Christmas, I heard from an over 80-year-old woman, living alone in a large apartment, that her daughter comes to see her with her children once a month. It is always on the day when she receives her retirement allowance. Her words are full of bitterness and sadness. One can see many reasons for such situations but the main one is the lack of upbringing and love. Children do not always learn at home how to show respect and gratitude for old people. Furthermore, the inability to live in a community and the lack of sensitivity towards other people result from being isolated from elderly people. Other reasons include a small flat or frequent moving out because of jobs. Sometimes parents are treated as burdens and a threat to freedom. Many a time one estimates their value by their salaries and possessions. It happens that old people are taken to old senior houses. A friend of mine who is a priest described a case of certain family that sent old mother to such a house although this family lived in a large house, had a luxurious car and could afford hiring a nurse that would care for their mother all the time. When I mentioned this to my 9-year-old daughter she asked why people took such decisions. I answered that their parents must have been obstacles to them. She could not understand this, ‘How can parents be obstacles to children?’, she wondered and immediately she added, ‘I will never send you to an old senior house. If I have a house you will live with me.’
Gift of old age
It is worth remembering what John Paul II spoke about old people in the Year of the Family, ‘Old age is a gift for which one should thank God: gift for man himself and gift for society and the Church.’ If it is a gift for society and the Church, it is first of all a gift for family. Older parents can share their wisdom; can give advice, help or spiritual support. It often happens that grandparents teach their grandchildren to make the sign of the cross and to pray. They care for traditions and faith. Their presence at home reminds us that human life passes by and it makes us reflect on the sense of life. The proper attitude of parents towards old people helps them teach their own children to respect and honour their grandparents and themselves. Believers should see that other people, including the old, are God’s children. Cutting yourself from your parents when it would be possible to live together is many a time harmful to the elderly and a loss for young people. Living together brings about mutual benefits. For the elderly can help, support or advice and young people can care for their aging parents. It can happen that a young married couple hires a babysitter and pays her a lot whereas their grandparents do not know what to do with their free time.
Building bridges between generations
The multigenerational family is the best environment of growing up. This does not only concern sharing living space but first of all to build spiritual unity between generations. It is much easier to create and sustain family bonds in multigenerational families. Although we have fewer and fewer multigenerational families the testimonies of many of them encourage building ‘bridges’ between generations. Here is one example. When I take my family to my hometown we always visit a married couple with four children who live in one house with the parents of the husband, his grandmother and brother’s family consisting of six members. It is an example of four generational family! During every visit we have the possibility to meet the whole family at meal time. Each time it is a great experience for us. There is a climate of generosity and love in this family. One can feel that they respect one another and show cordiality. Talking to them we learn that they help one another, eat meals together, pray together and go to church. One of the daughters of my colleague told us that she loved her grandfather since he sometimes read fables for her and told her interesting stories. And the great grandmother was very glad to live together with young people because as she said ‘they are good and helpful and I feel they need me.’ The interesting thing is that we have never seen any nervousness, dissatisfaction or impoliteness in spite of so many people of different ages. The young couple admits that when troubles appear the older, through conversation or even their very presence, help them see troubles from a proper perspective and consequently, it is easier for them to solve marital arguments and conflicts. One day they confessed that they could not imagine living far away from their parents and grandma. This is very meaningful.
Secret of youth
Although we have no influence on our aging and that life passes by, we can always feel young. John Paul II reminded us of that from the window in Franciszkanska Street in Krakow during his last visit to Poland. Referring to passing away and old age he said, ‘We can do nothing about it. There is one piece of advice. It is Lord Jesus. ‘I am the Resurrection and Life’, which means: in spite of old age, in spite of death we have youth in God.’ It is true that only in God man can always be young. It is also true that living with beloved children, grandchildren or great grandchildren helps old people keep a youthful spirit. Certainly, one of the biggest joys for parents and grandparents is to see the happiness of their children and grandchildren every day. On the other hand, sharing your life with your parents is the most beautiful form of gratitude for giving life and upbringing. We must remember that although living together could be hard we should show great gratitude for our parents for all that they have done for us. The words of Sirach remind us of that, ‘With all your heart honour your father, never forget the birthpangs of your mother. Remember that you owe your birth to them; how can you repay them for what they have done for you?’ (7:27-28).
Sense of life
Recently 99-year-old Domicela, grandmother of my wife, who has been bedridden for several years and speaks very little, has told me, ‘My mother was good and she loved me very much.’ Then I thought to myself, ‘will my children be able to say such words to me?’ We must realise that parents if they want to experience gratitude of their children must first specify their requirements wisely and teach them to love others. They will surely fulfil this task when it is a simplicity of heart that motivates them, and if they do not stop trusting God, i.e. until they have youthful spirits. Fortunately, we can always be young in God. Therefore, those who are old but feel young in spirit, despite troubles and many a time great suffering do not want to die since their lives still have sense because of the love of their family members they experience and which they want to give to others. So let us wish that our parents and grandparents desire to live as long as possible. Moreover, as representatives of the generation of John Paul II we feel obliged to do our best so that they can live in ‘everlasting youth.’
How many people find understanding and comfort from elderly people who may be lonely or ill and yet are able to instil courage by their loving advice, their silent prayers, or their witness of suffering borne with patient acceptance!
At the very time when their physical energies and their level of activity are decreasing, these brothers and sisters of ours become all the more precious in the mysterious plan of Providence.
From the letter of John Paul II ‘To my elderly brothers and sisters, 1999.