Perhaps this might offer some food for thought if you are inclined to make New Year's resolutions. . . .
I was thinking today of the place that American culture gives to (or, fails to give) the elderly. And it dismays me how poorly American culture in general treats those among us who are aged.
Though there are many good and beneficial things about America and what our nation has given the world, this falls under the category of a negative.
Asian cultures, historically (perhaps the younger generations in Asia are also letting this slip), were highly respectful and reverent toward their oldest family members. The elderly are greatly respected, honored, and appreciated in traditional Asian society.
How does American culture treat the elderly today? Basically, it ignores them. It is indifferent. It treats them like an afterthought.
Why? Many reasons, I'm sure. But certainly one significant reason is our excessive worship of everything young and youthful. Now, youthfulness has several good attributes. But it also has negative attributes that are gradually tempered with the coming of age and wisdom. Do we know this anymore as a society? Do we care? We go out of our way to highlight the ideas and energy of the young. But do we also have interest in the wisdom and experience of the aged--interest that is more than mere humoring?
In light of this I am reminded of the Old Testament. How did ancient Middle Eastern cultures regard the elderly? In the Old Testament view of the world it seems as though the respect and reverence that a family had for its eldest patriarch would continue to increase up to the point of death. The time just before death would be the point at which the most high regard would be given to an aged father of the family.
Consider the scene in Genesis 49, the death bed of Israel (Jacob). In this and similar Biblical death-bed scenes the family would gather around. The father would give a coveted blessing. On such occasions the respect and honor given by the family to the dying elderly person would be at its highest.
In stark contrast to this, do we go out of our way to honor our elderly as they lay dying? Sure, we spend money on funerals and say nice things after they die. But, given a situation in which we can reasonably anticipate that death is nearing, how do we show our love and respect to them before they die? Do we go out of our way to gather around?--To go to their bedside and be with them? To pray with them and honor them and accompany them respectfully as they pass from this life to the next?
I work now with the elderly, as I have in the past (on the oncology ward of a Naval hospital where I helped care for a number of elderly, dying patients). And it seems to me that the norm now in American culture is almost the opposite of the Biblical model. We give all our attention to the young and the potential of youth. We worship the god of youthfulness. As people age, get beyond middle age, retire, and become elderly, our society pays them less and less attention to the point of near-total indifference. Then finally, they die alone--unaccompanied, unloved, unnoticed. It happens every day in hospitals and houses and care facilities all over America. Of course there are wonderful exceptions to this. But this norm of neglect is all-too-common, and, I fear, increasing.
If we take our commitment to our Christian faith seriously, we have to do what we can to love, honor, and respect the elderly in our own families and in our society at large. We should pray that our loved ones do not die alone. Seriously. If it seems at all in the realm of possibility, please consider praying that you (and other loved ones) might be present at the side of an elderly member of your family (especially someone who is now alone) at his or her time of death. It is a great act of love to hold the hand of the dying, tell them you love them, that Jesus loves them, and to give them the dignity of not dying alone. The pain it may cause us to do so is secondary to the love and reverence given to them.