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In Defense of the Elders

July 22, AD2014

Action, fantasy, westerns, or any movie including a hero and a villain will usually peek my interest. The Marvel films captured my imagination’s child-like side. The side which wants to believe in the ultimate triumph of good through the feats of a few broken yet resilient individuals who refuse to admit defeat for no other reason than people need them to keep going.

One of my favorite moments in The Avengers, and one which may have passed unnoticed by most, comes when Loki was in Germany gathering his “necessities” for war. As he is forcing all those gathered to kneel and submit to him one individual stands up. Not a brash, hot head youth ready to do battle, but a solitary old man, an elderly soul weathered by life’s trials. What could he do? Nothing, but simply stand and resist. Loki’s response is to obliterate the man, or try to, but before Loki does he mockingly tells the people to “look to their elder” as an example. In traditional super-hero fashion, the Avengers come in and save the day.

Let’s return to the old man, though. Why did the director choose an old man? Why not a damsel in distress or an innocent child? Both could arguably be better choices given the two heroes who arrive are Iron Man, billionaire playboy, and Captain America, forever self-sacrificing good guy. So, why the elder?

Who We Look To

I would argue that most societies in history have assigned special significance to those who reach a ripe old age (whatever that may be). When we meet a silver hair, we might ponder what that person has seen, experienced, accomplished, or what they’ve survived.

Until recently, we’ve looked to them for leadership, guidance, and strength. Now, many believe passing youth holds all the answers for the life they have not yet lived. These youths often reject their elders’ beliefs and example because they are ‘outdated’ and ‘out of touch’ with modern sensibility and reality. The examples of the previous generations, both good and bad, used to help the following generation calibrate society toward the Truth when they came of age.

It is then a paradox that a society should draw strength from the very individuals who are often the weakest physically, but hold tremendous interior strength. Just as the smallest child causes hope and joy to spring up inside us because of their innocence and innate potential to create a new and brighter day, we may draw strength from the elders who’ve lived through life’s many sufferings.

You can sum up these things in how our grandparents and great-grandparents are greeting Death and old age, an example to observe. How they greet death sets a tone for subsequent generations whether we would accept it or not.

As One Would a Friend

The euthanasia debate has raged for years, so I shall not seek to add to it directly. Instead, what has euthanasia given us as a society? There is a very subtle difference between welcoming death calmly and seeking a premature death to end someone’s suffering.

Please, take note: I say ‘someone’ intentionally. Whose suffering is ending exactly is often up for debate. Initially, and even now, I believe some supporters of euthanasia only desired to alleviate the suffering they saw in a patient or loved one who is terminally ill.

The Catechism (2276- 2279) clearly states the Church teaches that euthanasia is ‘morally unacceptable’. But, the Church differentiates between ending a life and the ‘refusal of “over-zealous” treatment’ in accepting death’s inevitability. Care of the dying rather than speeding death on takes priority.

As usual, intent plays an integral role in determining the route to take, and each case possesses its own difficulties and confusion. The teaching might be direct but discerning how best to follow it when your loved one is sick and suffering is another story.

St. Francis de Sales wrote the following to an ill friend,

If only our hearts were to be fixed upon this holy and blessed eternity, we would then say to our friends: “Go, dear friends, go to that eternal Being in the hour he designates; we will follow right behind you. And since this time here below is given to us for the sake of eternity…our going there will have accomplished all that we had to do.”

The Path Most Traveled By

I heard Dr. Michael Barber once say “everyone wants to go to Heaven but no one wants to die”. We focus so much on the DNRs, the treatments, the rest homes, and the bills that I wonder how much thought is given to the thing itself. The moment of death.

As Catholics, do we help our elders when they are dying? Do we show them love by praying with them, spending time with them, making sure they are given the sacraments to aid them? Do we walk them towards death as they helped us take our first steps? Do we help them prepare for death? Or, do we simply hit the fast forward button?

It is a matter of great reproach for a mortal to die without having prepared for death, but it is twice as serious for those to whom our Lord has given the gift of old age. Those who arm themselves before the warning bell has tolled are always better off than those who, when the commotion breaks out, are running here and there looking for helmet and shield…We must be ready, and not in order to leave before the hour, but to await it tranquilly.-St. Francis de Sales

Given the seeming large amount of support for euthanasia and physician assisted suicide for the elderly, I would assume the answers to the questions wouldn’t be where one would hope for the population at large.

Despite Life Site News’ dramatic flare, they do have a point in the link between elderly or adult euthanasia and the new laws in Belgium and the Netherlands concerning child euthanasia. I remember the shock and outrage from those against euthanasia when this first came to light. I did not think the shock was warranted. There is no reason to be shocked when old age and infirmity have already been deemed not worth living. In other words, life is only precious to the point.

Defend the Elders

The right to chose and die with ‘dignity’ and to alleviate suffering, for both the patient and their loved ones, are the reasons given for why the elderly and young should be euthanized in certain situations. Dignity is never defined beyond seeking to die or to prevent suffering. Never mind the insanity of reasoning that a child, who is not allowed to drive, vote, marry, or drink, should be given the ‘right’ to make the ultimate decision to die (for no decisions follow).

We live in a world which actively encourages the old to ‘prepare’ for death by making sure their end of life procedures are in order so as not to be a burden on their loved ones. Loving someone may be hard or difficult at times but it is not a burden. DNRs and the like are not wrong in themselves, but, telling someone their death is only ‘not a burden’ and is dignified if it’s quick is wrong.

The line of reasoning in euthanasia debates began with alleviating suffering in the elderly, terminally ill patients, grew to include the suffering of those around the patient, is expanding to include the young, and the next step are those whose life expectancy or quality is not up to some arbitrary medical standard. All in the name of dignity and easing suffering. As if there is no suffering outside of death or dignity may only be found in a quick, chemical death. Because Christ never suffered or died for us, comforted us in our suffering, or bequeathed a miracle of a few more years with loved ones.

Our parents and grandparents’ lives are as much of an example to us as their deaths. How we, the young, treat them now as they age and draw near to death will be the most we can hope to expect from our children. How we treat the old is indicative of the love we do or do not bear for them.

Currently, our society tells us the old should never burden the young. Our world is fast, they are slow. Better to end their lives when disease presents itself rather than enjoy the gift of any additional time we have with them. Our God-given human dignity is dishonored and diminished when we throw away the life we hold in stewardship. Not to mention the fact that we ignore the gift their prayers and presence is for their family and the Church.

If we wish to defend against a culture of death, we should begin by focusing more on healing and helping our elders prepare for death rather than how best to make the ‘end’ come and go as quickly as possible.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Michael is a Texan living in self-inflicted exile as he finishes his PhD. in the history of early modern Britain. After completing his undergraduate degree at Baylor (Sic 'em!!), he decided his faith life needed re-evaluating and reinvigorating. He quickly realized that spiritual growth is a life long affair and not a quick fix. This created a thirst for a deep knowledge of the faith and a desire to share every nugget with others who may benefit. Michael is addicted to movies and books and enjoys quality time with friends and family.

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  • David Peters

    Michael, thank you for this very important article. I have some older friends and I hope they stay here a long time! We can learn so much from the elders. You’re also right about helping them as life draws to a close. We need to do more. I remember being with my father in his final days. It was a very important time for the both of us.

    • Michael Lane

      Thank you for sharing! It is hard to know what to do when we are confronted with the end. Sometimes the easiest and best thing we can do is be present for our loved ones and let them know they are not alone. God bless! I’ll pray for you and your father.

  • People will do horrible things because they think it will stop pain. The way that our culture pushes those who already fear being old or depending on others to seek death is horrifying– especially when you notice that it comes down to “all you people who make me uncomfortable, die.”

    Down’s, disability, old age– all must be eliminated. By eliminating the human evidence.

    • Michael Lane

      I didn’t mention it much, but several doctors have expressed the worry that children would be coerced into making the decision to die. This was the same idea presented in the US when the first ‘right’ to die debates began. Individuals who are already weakened by disease and depressed by their limited options are then presented with a ‘choice’, by doctors and family, to die prematurely.

    • Not just pressure– but greater acceptance of killing those unwilling to “choose” to kill themselves. A family friend’s son basically admitted he had killed his ill mother within a week of her going “home” with him…and there’s no a *blank* thing we can do about it.

      Several of my relatives chose to stop taking treatment, because they felt a duty to protect their families’ financial situation and emotional resources. (A long slow fade being judged, by them, worse than saying goodbye and letting nature take its course.)

      Look at how the “put them out of my discomfort” has moved in abortion– from the possibility of killing those who are suspected of being not physically perfect, to open attacks on a woman who did not kill her Down’s syndrome child. (Palin, among others.)

  • Bill S

    The writer of this article is what one might mockingly refer to as a “do-gooder”. He has little or no experience with situations where terminating a life is the humane thing to do. He makes broad generalizations and romanticizes suffering and death with religious overtones.

    Having been in a situation where a life was terminated by increasing the morphine dosage and we were all there to see the person off, so to speak, I have no doubt whatsoever that what I witnessed happens routinely in the medical profession even with it technically being somewhat illegal. Had we been prevented by do-gooders from allowing this to happen I would despise those do-gooders for putting that person and his family through needless suffering so as not to offend people’s religious sensibilities, scruples and taboos.

    • john654

      Bill, who the “person” you were there to see off, so to speak?

    • Bill S

      Not that it is relevant, it was my father and we all agreed that there was no point for him to continue in his state or live to be a vegetable.

    • john654

      The internet is such a dangerous place to talk about issues like this. I am not looking for a fight or to condemn you or anyone for that matter. I just don’t want you to think like the “World”. The person is always “Relevant”. One of the problems I have with your post is the word, “Terminate”. Here is the hard question, I think, I need to ask you. Did you, along with you family, ask someone to “terminate” your Dad?

    • Bill S

      For a couple of days, the nurse had been trying to tell us that it was time to let him go. If the word terminate came up it was that it was time to terminate the treatment including the ventilator and IV. Finally we agreed to let her give him an overdose. Then we watched his vitals flatline.

    • PJ

      Quit trolling the comboxes of Catholic sites BillS, you’re the biggest troll I’ve ever encountered

    • Bill S

      I am honestly relating the death of my own father. That’s not trolling. You are out of line.

    • A very sad comment, PJ and quite untrue about Bill S. The purpose of any blog and comment section is to stimulate discourse; it is not a hurrah site for people who see the world through only one lens. If disagreement is not acceptable, then blogs should be shut down. When you label someone as a troll, you do yourself a disservice…respond to the issue and don’t fall into the trap of “ad hominem” argumentation…this drives people away from discourse.

    • If you cannot tell the difference between disagreement and trolling, perhaps you should be avoiding blogs rather than declaring they should be shut down.

    • …constantly overwhelmed by your kindness and compassion

    • I am in awe of your consistency and manners.

    • My expectation is that you would be awed by my refusal to be anonymous?

    • Hypocrisy in such an open and shameless way is always amazing.

    • Patricia

      Bill S,
      I am sorry about your father. Please do recall, though, that a human being can never be a “vegetable.” Even in a comatose or minimally conscious state, human beings retain their God-given dignity & their immortal souls. God bless —

    • Bill S

      By that reasoning, he would have been kept alive in a vegetative state for solely religious reasons. That would have been very wrong and it shows what religion can do to people’s ability to make sane and responsible decisions. I know we did the right thing.