ROME – On any list of mega-trends shaping Western societies these days, a pride of place has to go to aging, fueled by massive expansion in the elderly population. Demographers actually have a tongue-in-cheek term for what’s happening – the “grayby boom,” as opposed to the “baby boom” of yesteryear.

According to a 2010 report from the United Nations Population Division, by 2045 the number of older persons in the world (defined as those 60 and above) will exceed the number of children (15 and under) for the first time. The UN body identified this as a demographic trend of mammoth consequence, one “without parallel in the history of humanity.”

The U.S. dimension of this trend is unquestionable. As of 2005, there were 60.5 million Americans under the age of 14, and 34.7 million over 65 – in other words, almost twice as many children as elderly. By 2050, the number of Americans under 14 will more or less hold steady at 59.7 million, but the number over 65 will explode to 75.9 million. That’s more than 100 percent growth in less than a half-century.

Australia, too, is experiencing the same through-the-looking-glass demographics, as the number of Australians aged 65 and over will more than double from 3.6 million today to 8.9 million by the middle of the century. That’s in large part why the Australian bishops this year chose to devote an annual statement on matters of social interest to the topic of, “A Place at the Table: Social Justice in an Ageing Society.”

In the abstract, one would expect Catholic bishops to have something to say on the subject of the elderly and their place in society – both because they’re pastors who are watching the aging of their own congregations, and because the Catholic hierarchy itself tends to be a bit of a gerontocracy. Bishops often aren’t named until their 50s or 60s, and generally serve well into their 70s or even 80s.

To unpack the Australian bishops’ message, I spoke in early September with Bishop Peter Comensoli of Broken Bay in New South Wales – ironically enough, at just 52 he’s actually one of the younger prelates going these days, but Comensoli is clearly aware of the challenges created by what a U.S. presidential commission predicted a decade ago was becoming a “mass geriatric society.”

The new statement and supporting resources can be found on the site of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. The following are excerpts from the Crux conversation with Comensoli.

(Image courtesy of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.)
(Image courtesy of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.)

Why this document, and why now?

Comensoli: Our sense is that older people are to some extent being ignored in our society, in terms of the older people themselves, their experiences and perspectives. There’s a lot of discussion about productivity, about what needs to be done in terms of care at the end of life, and so on. But the temptation is to see older people in terms of those issues, but not who they are in themselves and how their dignity and differences need to be acknowledged and recognized. That’s something we saw as a lack.

Does the fact that Catholic congregations are also aging give you a special pastoral sensitivity?

It’s certainly the case that we see these trends in our own pastoral experience. Often enough, churches these days have a lot of 65-plus folks. But I don’t think that’s the trigger [for this document], which is really not about what’s happening in churches but aging in society generally. Because of lower birth rates and the fact that people are living longer, challenges are being created socially and economically, and there’s new attention to being careful on resources.

The danger is that we end up couching the livers of the elderly in an economic framework, making it all about productivity and value in an economic sense. We don’t get around to asking what the difference is in their lives now, the real goodness and beauty to be found there, and what younger generations might learn from that.

The real aim of the statement is trying to help people understand the place of older people at the heart of our communities, not excluded from society and culture even as their frailty and vulnerability increases.

In trying to make sure the elderly have a place at the table, what are some of the challenges you see?

We already have some important efforts, one example of which is the very strong involvement of the Church in health care facilities, seeking to provide well for people in their later years and in questions dealing with the end of life. We can build on that sort of thing to promote solidarity between generations.

That idea of making sure the generations stay connected is key. I think of the challenge Pope Francis laid down at the recent World Youth Day [in Krakow, Poland], telling the young people to go talk to their grandparents.

Generally in Australia, there’s a growing awareness of the challenges older people face economically these days. We see a growing trend, that’s probably only at the beginning, of elder homelessness, for instance. It’s often a real plight for older people having to set up their own situations, without help from their families, leaving themselves exposed to not being able to come up with the resources to care for themselves. There’s a growing awareness too that elderly women in particular often lack resources and savings.

What we probably haven’t thought enough about is the fragmentation of family life generally, of not having the built-in resources of couples and children to provide care and company. This is one of the pressure points where the Church has an important voice to keep in front of our Christian faith that elderly people shouldn’t be rejected or denied a place in society because of a lack of resources and measurements around productivity.

Elder abuse can take different forms today, and it’s often expressed in an experience of isolation and loneliness.

To what extent is concern over euthanasia part of the picture?

There’s a real danger that we can reduce the value of people’s lives to how productive they are, which is certainly part of the very strong emerging pressures about euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Our aim has to be to dignify the dying, rather than death with dignity. We need to kill the pain and suffering, not the person.

We Catholics have great religious congregations that have always been very strong in this regard, providing tremendous palliative care. Yet today they too are aging, having to hand over that charism to structures that can continue the life of these congregations.

How do you promote solidarity among the generations inside the Church?

Right now, I’m attending a national conference here in Australia called “Proclaim” organized and hosted by our dioceses. It’s for practitioners in parishes, building up a sort of evangelical and missionary fervor. I suppose the average age in the crowd is people in their 50s and 60s, although there are some younger ones too … I said this morning it’s a bit like our own World Youth Day!

These opportunities are important to bring life to people who have been working hard in the field for many years, in a sense to be catalysts for renewal, because they’re the ones who are geared to do it.

What’s the key to building awareness about issues facing the elderly?

I think one important thing is to simply get people to look at their own family situations. I look at my own mom, who’s 86, a deeply faithful Catholic, but her opportunities to be engaged in parish life these days are limited by her physical and cognitive deterioration. She’s exactly the kind of person to whom we need to reach out, and by whom we need to be challenged.

My dad died last year, and I can see in my own mom the reality of the isolation elderly sometimes face, a loss of a sense of purpose in their own lives. Sometimes that can make us afraid, especially those of us in middle age today who see our own future, and that can lead to being fearful of older people. We need to break through that, and we can do it in very simple ways.

Maybe the right way to think about it is this: It’s not that we need to give the elderly a place at our table. The trick instead is to ask, how can I come to the table of the older generations and enjoy their meal, what they have to offer, and be a part of their lives? In other words, it’s not that we’re including them, but they’re including us.

Remember, Jesus often went to other people’s tables, he didn’t necessarily demand that they always come to his.

We have to recognize the intergenerational bridges that need to be built, which used to happen almost organically within families, but which you can’t necessarily take for granted today. That call to treasure the elderly, to rebuild those bridges, is where Pope Francis is especially brilliant.