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"The Importance of the Elderly"

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By John Papson

I remember the years my grandfather lived with my family. In fact, my earliest memory is from the time he came to live with us when I was just 3½ years old. He was stout and strong. In his curious mixture of Greek and English, he told wild and fanciful tales of his youth on the island of Lesbos while it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Even now, he still seems larger than life. There was many a time—thinking I might be in trouble—that I would run to hide behind his wide shoulders. Before my sisters and I were to receive Holy Communion, we would first have to go to him, kneel down, kiss his hand, and ask for his blessing. Of course, he always seemed to know this was to occur and would have a quarter ready for each of us. What I wouldn’t give today for the opportunity to have an afternoon alone with him conversing, reminiscing, and most assuredly sharing some of the wonderful ouzo he so expertly made.

Space permits us but a brief mention of the role and stature of elderly in our faith and culture. The Old and New Testaments are replete with examples of honor and respect given to the elderly. The patriarchs and prophets lived deep into old age. Abraham and Sarah brought forth a son, Isaac, when they were advanced in years, as did Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of the Baptist and Forerunner John. St. John the Evangelist, the only one of our Lord’s apostles not to be martyred, lived into his nineties.

In church, we chant ‘eis polla eti despota’ (many years) to the bishop. On holidays, birthdays, and namedays we wish each other ‘chronia polla’ (many years).  We are praying and wishing for a long life. As we do this, we remind ourselves of the blessings that can come when a long life is well lived. And how do we know about these blessings? We know from the memories we have of our elders who handed down the faith and culture to us. In return, we give them our respect in a variety of ways.

There can be little doubt that many of the traditions of our faith and culture face much pressure in our contemporary society. An example of this is the role and function of the elderly in the family and community. Our society today is youth oriented. Value is connected to productivity and the elderly oftentimes are seen as a burden. But how do we define productivity? Does it mean having a job and bringing home a paycheck? Is there value in being rather than doing?

Many of us have had the experience of having an elderly parent or grandparent live with our families. In this experience, we can see the value of old age. Value comes from the presence of someone who has had a lifetime of experiences, who has gained wisdom from their life, and who displays a perseverance that is worthy of emulation. The opportunity exists for the old to give to the young a taste of a lifetime of living within a cultural and spiritual milieu that is, to a great extent, unlike one they are likely to come in contact with during everyday life. To this day, one can still see in church elderly Greek widows dressed entirely in black. To study them carefully is to recognize in them a real certainty of Christ as Lord and Savior. As an example to their family and the community of believers, the elderly become cultural transmitters and beacons of faith.

The community of faith can contribute much to efforts to support families and their elderly, not just in cases of illness, but also where the elderly have no close social or family support. Many communities have organizations for the elderly which help to ensure an ongoing connection with faith and culture. But what is also needed is outreach—support in many ways—to those who are shut in, those without family nearby, those with no family at all, or those who might be in a rest home or a nursing home. This type of philanthropy is at the core of Christian belief of community; an expression of love that helps to bind together the community of faith.

Not that someone could actually replace my grandfather, but there have been many elderly men and women who became ‘papoudes’ and ‘yiayiades’ to me, enriching my life as examples of faith and models of inspiration, who lived lives worthy of imitation. There is little doubt in my mind and heart that I received in return for my work at least as much as I gave over the many years I have worked with the elderly. This idea—this act of loving, losing, and loving again—is an expression of philanthropy at a very deep and meaningful level. This opportunity to give back to and nourish the segment of the community that preserved, propagated, and transmitted our faith and culture to future generations.

We suffer many types of losses as we age. These might be physical in nature, but they are also losses of relationship such as the death of a spouse, siblings, friends, and—in some cases—an adult child. Isolation can come about when someone can no longer drive, which limits socialization. Intimacy is achieved through relationships, either ongoing or new. Generativity, the process of literally being creative and thus engaged, can be achieved by such methods as mentoring, sharing experiences, or being part of outreach to other elderly. Continuity is the fruit of intimacy and generativity. All of this contributes to successful aging. The community must enable and encourage its elderly members to continue to participate in it life of the community, and provide the ways to do so. This idea of service to the community of faith does not exclude the elderly from participation.

We have inherited a precious legacy of spiritual and cultural values. Our parents and grandparents incorporated those values into their lives and community so that we would benefit from them. It is now our turn to make sure this legacy is passed on to future generations.

 

John Papson graduated from Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He did further graduate work at Boston University studying the aged and old age. He is a social worker who has worked with the elderly for the past 30 years.