Is old age really the age when one must “lower one's sails,” as Dante Alighieri said?
We know that the Western world is aging. Scholars tell us that the birth rate is continuously decreasing, while the elderly age group is growing. And yet these statistics, which should make us aware and considerate of everyone, juxtapose the profit culture of our era. It is an era in which the elderly, no longer productive, often become a burden on society and the family. If an elderly person is seriously ill, the combination becomes even more burdensome.
I recently lost my father, who was 91 years old and had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for ten years, the last four of which he was practically immobile. I know how difficult it is to accept the illness of a loved one, how exhausting it is to see a disease slowly take him over and inhibit all his mobility. It got to the point that he could only look at me and couldn’t utter a word. So, trust me when I say: I am very familiar with the temptation to listen to that voice in the back of your mind that evermore loudly screams: "What's the point?"
And he gave me the answer himself, with his humble bearing of his illness, he taught me that the value of his life was his very presence. Yes, you are worth it because you are here – because you exist.
Old age: man's defeat or golden age?
In the “culture of wasting” in which we find ourselves following orders, someone who is old or sick not only does not produce anything, but is rather a burden that should be discarded as soon as possible. The elderly are fragile, and if they are affected by illness they are even more so, and may suffer from loneliness. We are afraid of frailty; we do not accept it because it does not correspond to the standards of efficiency that the world requires of us. We toil in chasing eternal youth, and many people undergo all sorts of things to extend their lives. It is therefore evident that old age is seen as a man’s defeat – a surrender to time. Let's try to think of it, instead, as a phase of life that has an inestimable value, as with antiques that no one would dream of throwing away.
This is where the painful reality of active euthanasia comes in – a practice now legal in various countries around the world. Under the guise of allowing everyone to "be the master of his own life" or to do so "for his own good," it allows those who are old, sick, or tired of living to take a drug that "gently" accompanies them towards death. We are more concerned with regulating death than we are with finding a meaning for a life that apparently means nothing, and then protecting and valuing life at every stage. In my father's eyes, even though they were tired and tried by the disease and heavy from his discouragements, I have always seen in them a desire for the future and a request for companionship and help, as well as infinite gratitude. The poor health, suffering, and loneliness of the elderly should not be ignored. The solution is not an “easy pass” to the afterlife, but rather to remedy physical and mental suffering.
Suffering and sickness: a possibility of meaning
But let’s get back to the crucial question: what meaning does the life of an old man – and a sick one at that – hold? We might find an answer by reflecting on the human being as a creature at the top of the natural hierarchical scale. The Christian vision adds a transcendent basis: man is the image of God, therefore the dignity of the person bears intrinsic and permanent value, not dependent on predetermined standards of beauty and physical and mental efficiency. Furthermore, suffering and illness are not meaningless—they give meaning to life, rendering it unique and singularly precious. The purpose for someone's existence comes from the simple fact that he exists and not from his qualities or abilities. It is easy to recognize beauty, purpose, and dignity in a young and healthy person, but the risk is that beauty, performance, and health outshine the rest. Instead, it is precisely in an ill elderly person – in his or her sheer humanity – that the beauty of the human being emerges and shines through: behind the wrinkles and scars, within physical immobility, in the person’s absolute dependency. Just as a pearl comes out of a shell does fragile old age reveal the beauty and dignity inherent in the depths of every person. Here, then, the elderly or are ill allow us to recognize the root of the beauty of the value of human life lies in vulnerability, and we discover that, in depending on one another, we find the meaning of life, which is to take care of one another until the end. Companionship, tenderness, and love: this is the solution that counters the culture of discarding life and rushing death.
Just to drive this point home, I’ll recount one last thing: my father said to me one afternoon when my brothers and I were all at his place for a visit: “Today I'm really happy!” and while I, the only daughter of this cohort, inside thought to myself: “How could someone who is immobile in a bed, covered in sores and full of aches and pains be happy?” He added: “Because today you are all here!”