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Rethinking India's elderly in light of the Beatitudes

Younger generation needs to slow down and not leave the elderly behind

Rethinking India's elderly in light of the Beatitudes
D Babu Paul, Thiruvananthapuram

October 18, 2013

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Pope Francis has noted that among the Ten Commandments there is only one that promises a reward. If you honor your parents you will have long life. As I am currently working on a book on the Beatitudes I am prompted to reword this commandment as a Beatitude: Blessed are they that honor their parents, For they shall have long life.

Since March I have been with Pope Francis. Though a de facto Catholic, belonging to the Syrian Orthodox Church, I am de jure not one, but I was asked to write a biography of the new pope and that is where this ‘companionship’ began.

Over the last half year I have begun to relate almost everything to Francis, and when I think of old age and old people I readily recall his conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka on old people.

The elderly are deemed disposable today, and the rabbi opens the conversation with this observation. He identifies two reasons for this situation, wealth and haste.

Those who lived with dignity are forced to live alone when their children run all the time, in a hurry, to make money, for their children. Homes for the elderly, no matter how luxurious, do not solve the problem of being left out.

Earlier society consisted of the oppressors and the oppressed, but now it also has to be divided into the included and the excluded.

Bergoglio, as he then was, told the rabbi that it was not merely wealth and haste that led to this sad state of affairs but also the egoism of the next generation-- sons and daughters who think that fathers and mothers smell.

The pope uses the analogy of the overcoat which is hung away in the wardrobe when winter is over. Conceding that all children are not the same the pope acknowledges those who visit, or take home, their parents for weekends.

Yet he says he weeps inside when he remembers the plight of the neglected elderly. Francis calls this inadequate care “covert euthanasia”. He reminds us that old age should be deemed matured wine and not allowed to turn into sour vinegar.

Francis recalls in this context that he enjoys the chapter in Deuteronomy, Chapter 26, which reminds Israel that the Promised Land was given to their parents, and that they would inherit houses that they did not build.

It is when we forget history and begin to imagine that it begins with us that the trouble begins. The conversation ends with the pope gratefully remembering his grandparents and how they molded his personality.

In this country, India, and particularly in states like Kerala where the physical quality of life is almost on par with Europe, the geriatric segment in society is always expanding.

In 1947 when we became independent the average life expectancy was just about 26. Today in Kerala it is 76. Of course, these statistics should be read with the fact that the drastic fall in the infant mortality rate helps account for the life expectancy figure as much as the physical quality of life the survivors enjoy.

Yet the fact remains that the geriatric segment is always expanding. Alongside this expansion the urbanization of mindscape, more than the landscape, weakens the vertical linkages.

Of course it does strengthen the horizontal linkages but they are sustained by machines and material circumstances; there is no soul in it. It is the vertical linkage, father to son and grandmother to granddaughter, which is measured by hemoglobin. That blood connectivity cannot be substituted by digital connectivity, especially in old age.

This is the context where the Church and the Mother of God come in. In this seventy- third year of my life I imagine myself as being put to sleep by Mary the Mother of God every night but I also see my mother who died in 1983 and my grandmothers who died even earlier watching with satisfaction how in my old age I practice what they taught me when I was a child.

Proximity to Church and Mary would be important virtues to be inculcated in early years if in later years care for the elderly becomes the fruit borne by a generation.

D Babu Paul is a writer and columnist. A former member of the IAS, he wrote the first Bible Dictionary in Malayalam

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