October 23, 2009

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

We need to make the most of each new day

Cynthia DewesAs our population ages, our society is presented with challenges that we never dreamed of before. For one thing, we live many years longer now, a fact which has changed our ideas about medical and long-term care for the elderly.

People used to keep their elderly relatives at home, caring for them until they died. Often, in those less-mobile days, several generations of a family would live in the same house or location, all ages together from birth to death. There was always someone at hand to watch Grandma or Grandpa while the others were busy so retirement homes were few.

Most women worked at home, where the care of elderly parents was part of their job, rather than away in the community. And, since unmarried people usually lived at home, there was often a maiden aunt or bachelor uncle around who became the ultimate caregiver for their parents. Besides all that, children were expected to help out as part of a family rather than being “special,” without much responsibility for others.

Of course, there was the county old folks’ home for the indigent and those without any family to help them. This could be a bad experience for some, but that was just life. Or death, as often followed at the county home.

Indeed, death was simply a fact, not to be avoided if not exactly a popular choice. And, medical technology being what it was at the time, there was a kind of fatalistic belief that the problems of aging would carry us off sooner rather than later. The idea of keeping old people alive just because we could was not yet the general practice.

Today we have the cheerful idea that “40 is the new 30” or, better yet, “70 is the new 60.” We live longer and healthier lives, we are independent of others’ care until much later, and we have opportunities for personal enrichment that never existed previously. So why do we keep hearing remarks like, “Old age isn’t for sissies,” or “What idiot said these are the Golden Years?”

Actually, we hear these things because they’re true. It does take courage to bear up under the physical and material infirmities of aging. And “Golden Years” grates on old ears as a euphemistic term coined by kindly, if clueless, younger speakers.

The fact is, most of us older folks are grateful to wake up every morning to God’s new day. It may take us an hour or two to get all the body parts working together, but that’s OK. We have the time, we’re usually retired, and the delay allows for more reflection and prayer in our daily schedule.

Once we’re up and functional, our opportunities to live rich lives are endless. We may be older, but we can still learn and contribute to society, if only from a chair or a sickbed. We can still observe God’s beauty in our world and in those around us, and we can share those insights with others.

To help us, there are daytime church groups, daily Mass, public libraries and their services. There are local colleges and schools, senior centers and organizations like Oasis. There’s the telephone, and other forms of communication. And there’s always sorting out the cluttered files or garage or boxes of “stuff” which have been waiting patiently for years.

No matter our age, each new day we greet is God’s gift to us. I say we should make the most of it.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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