For some time now, I belong to the category of ‘Seniors’ so I am taking the risk of expressing some thoughts that I hope will have a wider application beyond what I can say about the only retirement home that I know (Maison Lavigerie’ at Pau-Billère).
Among the group of seniors there are two principal groups: those who accept on one level that they are ‘old’ and those who do not accept it at all at all. There is a third group that I will talk about later on.
Let us begin with those who recognise that they are ‘old’: In French, it is more elegant to say ‘senior’ because in Africa it is an honour to be old and in general, society recognises us for our wisdom and respects us. However, in Europe, the word is more a sign of decrepitude and we, Europeans, feel that very much. Even if we avoid recognising this condition; illness and tiredness remind us! Certainly, some people do accept to becoming old; we have had our time of full vitality and now it is the time to slow down but life continues towards its normal end as for every living creature. This risks adopting a passive attitude, letting go without accepting our situation.
As a member of an institute of common life (Missionaries of Africa), the ideal would be to prolong as far as possible the possibility of living a fraternal life in the time that is left to us. This is possible as long as there is a sufficient number of confreres to take care of those who are more handicapped. This is done in a number of feminine congregations especially those, that have a sufficient number of nurses among their members.
However for us missionaries who do not have many houses in Europe, this is not possible. The practical solution (at least in France) was to seek help from an EHPAD which is basically a medical organisation that looks after dependent elderly people. In fact, it’s a hospital and the main aim is to provide appropriate medical care. The official organization of this system relieves the heads of the institute (Provincials), both financially and in terms of the practical organization of the house: depending on the degree of dependence of the “residents.” In fact the house could have as many carers as there are residents. Even if these carers from the doctor and the lay director down to the cleaner are kind towards the old missionaries, on the whole it does not constitute a community and we are very far from the ideal that we hoped to find at the end of our lives.
These reflections need to be developed further regarding structures and people.
Structures: when a congregation asks an EHPAD to take over, the aim is not only to be rid of the burden of the material organisation of the house (medical care, financial administration…); it should also assure a real accompaniment on the level of spiritual life without being in competition with the direction of the hospital. This double direction is sometimes difficult to work out because the interests are often contrary.
Regarding help to people some more reflection needs to be done. I have not participated at a session for the 4th age but having seen what has happened in many other congregations, I would like to point out a few things.
In our missionary life (it is the same thing for active religious) there are personal events which force us to look at things squarely; it can be the weakening of our bodies, the result of a medical test, or a warning sign as a result of a remark made by a confrere. Even if this surprises us, we should not deceive ourselves: “I am going through a difficult time, I am getting weaker.” This is where I am whether I like it or not! It is up to me to face up to the situation.
Some people find difficulty in accepting this state of affairs. It is the 3rd group of which I have referred to above. They hang on to what they have done (in the past) and often that is justified. They are proud of their achievements. However that leads them to lie to themselves and to others. They do not accept any suggestion that they give up driving because they are becoming a public danger, they refuse to accept that their accounts are getting mixed up after having faithfully looked after them for 50 years as bursar, they refuse to accept that now they sing badly after having spent many years as choirmaster. It is not necessarily pride but incapacity to take into account their actual situation and they still believe and want to be useful as in the past.
Whatever group we belong to (still active, really diminished, or diminished without knowing it) we are called to look at Jesus. In the perspective of our life in Christ, this last stage makes us realise that Jesus did not experience old age. However, he comes to live in us: let us allow him to live with so many men and women through us. Like Him, we can show solidarity with all those who are experiencing this moment of the diminution and the aging process. We have a unique opportunity to share our life with Christ, with the poor, with the diminished. We need to prepare ourselves to enter into this perspective.
Teilhard de Chardin saw in suffering, Jesus approaching:
“In all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself”.
And Teilhard concludes:
“It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion.”
Can this be our perspective, without cheating!
You will find below the complete extract from Le Milieu Divin under the heading “Communion through diminishment.”
Communion through diminishment
It was a joy to me O God, in the midst of the struggle, to feel that in developing myself I was increasing the hold that you have upon me; it was a joy to me, too, under the inward thrust of life or amid the favourable play of events, to abandon myself to your providence. Now that I have found the joy of utilising all forms of growth to make you, or let you, grow in me, grant that I may willingly consent to this last phase of communion in the course of which I shall possess you by diminishing in you.
After having perceived you as he who is ‘a greater myself’, grant, when my hours comes, that I may recognise you under the species of each alien or hostile force that seems bent on destroying or uprooting me. When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; or above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only that my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
The more deeply and incurably the evil is encrusted in my flesh, the more it will be you that I am harbouring – you as a loving, active principle of purification and detachment. The more the future opens up before me like some dizzy abyss or dark tunnel, the more confident I may be – if I venture forward on the strength of your word – of losing myself, and surrendering myself in you, of being assimilated by your body, Jesus.
You are the irresistible and vivifying force, O Lord, and because yours is the energy, because, of the two of us, you are infinitely the stronger, it is on you that falls the part of consuming me in the union that should weld us together. Vouchsafe, therefore something more precious still than the grace for which all the faithful pray. It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion.
From Le Milieu Divin by Teilhard de Chardin, first published in English by William Collins Sons & Co 1960 Ltd. Section on ‘Communion through diminishment.’ , pps 89-90.