In my last column, "Medical-religious alliance can address elderly's health needs," I indicated that my next column (this one) would be a companion piece on "health ministries in Howard County churches." Unfortunately I just couldn't fit all the interviews into my work and "retirement" schedule. I will pick up on this topic again and you will see that column very soon. So, I had to regroup in midstream and decided to write about the needy elderly and the need for all persons to treat seniors with respect and to provide them the care they deserve.
Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor, sent me email, titled "The needy elderly deserve our support." She notes that the United Nations celebrated the International Year of Older Persons at the end of the 20th century, heralding the vision of "A Society for All Ages." Sister Constance states that so far in this millennium it has been anything but that. She cites the following reasons for her statement: "… the abandonment of frail seniors during natural disasters from Louisiana to Japan, the legalization of assisted suicide in several U.S. states and foreign countries, and political rhetoric that seems to consider the growing population of seniors as nothing but a problem to be solved." This certainly was not what was envisioned in 1999.
The Catholic Church in America observes Respect Life Month every October and Sister Constance said, "It is a good time to reflect on the elderly — before it is too late." Because of recent political and cultural trends, I see the importance of reflecting on the elderly, but, in my view, it is a shame that we don't think about the elderly and their needs all year long. Sister Constance wonders what has happened to filial piety, a virtue common to the Jewish and Christian scriptures and many traditional cultures. It is respect for our elders and assuring proper care and attention for them.
In a Web search, I saw definitions for filial piety in Buddhist and Chinese philosophy and many other cultures, so it appears that filial piety is an international virtue, a primary duty of respect, obedience and care for one's parents and elderly family members. This same duty needs to extend to all seniors/elderly. Sister Constance said, "…we may be tempted to think that the elderly are solely government's responsibility and not our own. The care of our elders, however, is really not an act of philanthropy, but the repayment of a debt of gratitude on the part of each of us toward our parents, grandparents and other elders in our community."
When I was growing up, it wasn't uncommon for youngsters to grow up in a household, which included their grandparents. I wasn't that fortunate to grow up in such a home, because three of my grandparents were already deceased when I was born. I believe this type of household led to better interaction between the young and the old, a better understanding of the elderly on the part of young people, and a special bond and respect between the young and old.
I agree with Sister Constance when she says that we should look upon each elderly person as if they were our own parent; we should see ourselves in them and remember that we too will be old one day.
Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879) founded the religious order of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the 19th century near Rennes, France, to care for the elderly poor who were living on the streets of many French towns and cities. Her ministry of hospitality for the elderly poor began at a time in history when there were no social services for the homeless, when those who were deemed useless or undesirable were cast aside and left in the streets to fend for themselves. Jeanne treated each elderly person as her mother or father and worthy of care, not as a burden to society or the responsibility of government alone. Jeanne Jugan was canonized a saint in 2009.
Today Saint Jeanne Jugan's mission is continued around the world, and close to home in Washington and Baltimore. The Little Sisters of the Poor came to Washington in 1871 and today minister at the Jeanne Jugan Residence on Harewood Road, near Catholic University. When I was in high school on Capitol Hill in Washington, we use to go as a class monthly to help the Little Sisters in one of their previous locations. Interacting with the elderly was a good, growth experience for all of us. The Little Sisters have served without interruption in Baltimore since 1869. Their current location is on Maiden Choice Lane in Baltimore.
The Little Sisters of the Poor realize that caring for the elderly poor is growing more difficult because of funding cuts, a chronic shortage of qualified caregivers, and the increasingly callous attitudes of society toward the sacredness of human life. Needy seniors and those in medically underserved areas have limited options. They can't afford to stay home or take advantage of community-based services or assisted living facilities, which also may not have sufficient funding through Medicaid. Skilled nursing facilities may be the poor's only option and the best option for some seniors because of chronic, complex health care needs or a lack of available support in the community.
As committed caregivers, the Little Sisters of the Poor offer a home, love and respect to the needy elderly. The most vulnerable members of our society should receive the care they deserve. To accomplish this care, more appropriate levels of financing are needed; programs with incentives for training and retaining qualified caregivers need to be created; and we all need to summon the virtues of filial piety and solidarity as the basis to support and cherish the elders in our family and community not as a burden, but as a blessing.