World Elder Abuse Awareness Day has been designated by the United Nations as an occasion to focus international attention on abuse of the elderly – abuse that, in its many forms, is estimated to affect 10 percent of the rapidly-growing population over the age of 65.
Observed every year on June 15, this day prompts discussion of the ways in which our legal and political structures and the human rights framework can better respond to the often hidden ways in which the elderly suffer at the hands of those who, all too frequently, can be their own family and friends.
As valuable as this discussion may be, however, elder abuse is a symptom of something far beyond what the law can address on its own.
It raises a profound moral question that strikes at the heart of how, and whether, we honor our fathers and mothers – and whether a utilitarian view of human life has led us to devalue the elderly in ways that lead to neglect, abuse, and even death.
It is easy to point to blatant financial abuse, fraud, physical attack, and medical neglect inflicted on the elderly and say – with certainty and clarity – that these are evil and illegal acts.
However, it is also easy to ignore the more subtle disregard for the elderly which, like disregard for any vulnerable group, can be the fertile soil in which more obvious evil takes root.
Disrespect for the dignity of life at its very beginning has led to laws which permit the destruction of human life in the womb – elevating this destruction to the status of a legal right even though, each day, medical science makes it ever clearer what, or, rather, who this “right” destroys.
So, too, disrespect for vulnerable life in its advanced years destroys human life in different ways. Most obviously, as legislation is passed permitting assisted suicide and healthcare companies deny coverage for treatment, our national conversations and our laws are shaping a society in which certain lives are considered unworthy of protection.
Thus, in a literal way, the lives of many elderly will be ended because of an illness that leads them, or others, to decide that their lives no longer have value because they are fragile, require new dependence, or are perceived to be a burden.
While this is the most dramatic case, lack of respect for the elderly can take other forms. Pope Francis has said, “The care given to the elderly, like that of children, is an indicator of the quality of a community. When the elderly are tossed aside, when the elderly are isolated and sometimes fade away due to a lack of care, it is an awful sign! … [W]e throw away the elderly, behind which are attitudes of hidden euthanasia. They aren’t needed and what isn’t needed gets thrown away. What doesn’t produce is discarded.”
“Hidden euthanasia” is not a common turn of phrase. While World Elder Abuse Awareness Day may invite us to look at our legal and political frameworks, Francis’s exhortation is a more challenging invitation to consider the subtle ways in which the elderly may be victims of a “throwaway culture” and to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.
It challenges us to see whether we abandon those whose physical strength and mental acuity is different than what it used to be, and whether we stop visiting those whose company will change the way we remember them.
It challenges us to think about how easily our elders can be excluded from companionship if we ignore them in our conversations, speaking about but not to them or believing that we are too busy to “waste” time in conversation and reminiscing with them.
It challenges us to think about the nature of our communities and whether we allow those who were once at the center of their families to find themselves on the periphery.
It also invites us to ask if we appreciate the wisdom of our elders, if we take time to gather it, since it is a precious bequest that we can easily miss.
In a 2013 homily, Francis spoke of a story he heard in his youth that made a powerful impression on him. The story was one of an elderly man living with his son and the son’s family. As the man aged and became less capable of eating neatly, his son bought a table for him so that he could eat alone in the kitchen and, thus, not disturb the rest of the family at dinner. One day, the son came home and saw his own young son “playing carpenter.” When asked, the child said he was building “[a] table for you, papa, for when you get old like grandpa.”
The tragedy of this vignette lies not in the fact that the elderly man was suffering the abuse that is the focus of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. After all, his son was offering him the sustenance of food and the comfort of shelter in his own home.
The tragedy lies in the fact that this was given without the sustenance and comfort of love – and that the tragedy will soon repeat itself, unless our fast-paced society moves from efficiency and complacency to compassionate care for our elders.
Lucia Silecchia is a professor of law at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She teaches in the area of elder law and writes on human rights, environmental ethics, and Catholic social teaching.