A few weeks ago I sat down and watched a UK program called Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds. It followed the real life scenario of a daycare center being introduced into a home for the elderly. While this is apparently more common in America, it was the first time it had ever been trialed in the UK.
To say that it was heartwarming was an understatement, and while the experiment was certainly a wonderful success, it would be an injustice to simply only say that about it. The elderly adults found new confidence and vigor for life, as the four year-olds helped them open up, exercise, and be more active than they had been in years. But what was really tragic was the anecdotal evidence, backed up by statistics, that show how lonely and depressed elderly people often are.
According to research carried out by the Campaign to End Loneliness,
Not only that, but the health risks to both physical and mental health caused by loneliness are dangerously high.
Around the same time as watching this program I had the pleasure of visiting in a local senior’s home, a family friend who will turn 100 in a few months time. The walls of his room were decorated with the happy pictures of a lifetime of memories. While he remains even now cheerful and upbeat, I couldn’t help but think how sad it was that such a rich and long life was now distilled into the very small space of the four walls of his room.
All this got me thinking hard. I know that when I feel lonely, there are many things I can do to resolve that. I still have the freedom and ability to make a phone call, walk and see someone, or plan a fun day out with friends. One lady on the show said that when she gets lonely, she goes to bed and sleeps so that she doesn’t have to think about it. This was horrible to hear, as was seeing the look of a loss of dignity on her face that was apparent as she said it.
And so with that all in mind, here is what I, at the age of 26, would want the elderly to know:
I want you to know that you are still an important and a valuable member of society.
I want you to know that I know that you are not “a boring old person”. I know that you had a life, had adventures, fell in love, achieved things I’m still only dreaming of, lived through things that I can only imagine.
I want you to know that I’d love to hear your stories if you wished to share them, about how you grew up, about the quirky coincidences of life, about the days that shattered your heart or the times you laughed so hard that you cried.
I want you to know that if I am impatient with you in public, don’t give you the time or space you need in going about your daily tasks when I am rushing somewhere full of the importance of my busyness, then I am truly sorry, because your pace is in fact one we should all embrace, the pace that takes time to take things in, instead of racing by and missing all the good that the world has to offer.
I want you to know that I do not take lightly that you are approaching the end of life, and that neither you nor I will know what that will be like, but that you are potentially closer to it than me leaves me awestruck and sober. This gives me a deep sense of respect for you. I do not want you to think that you go into that alone, even if we all must face it alone in the final moments.
I want you to know that I am truly sorry that we have created a society that leaves you so lonely, so under-appreciated, so disrespected and so uncared for. I want you to know that I will do my best to rectify this for others, even in small ways, in the lives of those elderly who live around me.
I want you to know that I am grateful for all the ways you have contributed to society, for all the lives you’ve touched and helped, for all the inspiration you have given even if you didn’t know it at the time. I want to thank you for the good examples you have set, and for the love you have shared, both in giving and receiving it. I want to thank you for leaving the world a better place, even if you don’t feel that you have made a big impact on it.
Perhaps I can end by borrowing the words of Pope Benedict XVI, when he addressed the elderly during his visit to the UK in 2010.
“At the very start of my pontificate I said, “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”…Life is a unique gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and to take. One may enjoy good health in old age; but equally Christians should not be afraid to share in the suffering of Christ, if God wills that we struggle with infirmity…
“As the normal span of our lives increases, our physical capacities are often diminished; and yet these times may well be among the most spiritually fruitful years of our lives. These years are an opportunity to remember in affectionate prayer all those whom we have cherished in this life, and to place all that we have personally been and done before the mercy and tenderness of God. This will surely be a great spiritual comfort and enable us to discover anew his love and goodness all the days of our life.”
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