Some time ago, an elderly friend asked me to take her shopping at the mall. While we were in the mall corridor, she suddenly slipped and fell.
I knelt down and tried to pick her up but was not strong enough, and while I pulled, she lay sprawled on the floor. Two teenage girls ran over to us.
“Can we help you?” they asked kindly. Together, they gently lifted my friend to her feet. She was bruised, tired, and humiliated, but otherwise unhurt.
The girls walked away after they saw that my friend would be okay. Their service lasted only a few minutes, but the memory of it never left me. In a world where teenagers are often accused of being self-centered and oblivious, here was proof that many wonderful teenagers are still being raised.
Those girls understood a fundamental truth about human dignity: The elderly deserve our respect, our admiration, and our assistance. Senior citizens were once teenagers themselves—and then they poured out their lives for the generations who would follow them. The wear and tear on their bodies and minds is a testament to all they gave of themselves, every year, every day of their lives. The hands that washed thousands of dishes now struggle to hold a cup. The eyes that looked on their families with love now strain to recognize the faces of their children. The feet that once danced around the kitchen now stumble in awkward, unbalanced half-steps. They gave all they had, and now they depend on the ones who were born after they were to be there, to walk with them as the sun sets on the long day of their lives.
A few weeks ago, I walked behind an older woman as she shuffled into Mass. A gentleman held the door and waited for her while she slowly entered. Every step seemed as arduous as a mountain climber would find the steepest peak. It took her ten times as long as most people to enter the church and find her way to a pew, but she did it. She got there. She persevered.
“Now, that’s a pilgrimage,” the parishioner who had been holding the door said to me. A pilgrimage, indeed. Some people walk El Camino de Santiago; some get in a plane and fly to Lourdes; and some gentle souls put one foot in front of the other and walk from the parking lot into Mass.
These amazing people have such admirable strength, so much wisdom, so much to teach us. We should be flocking to them as people flock to celebrities, sitting at their feet and listening to their stories and learning all we can from them while they are still with us! And yet, many old people are lonely.
Loneliness on the Path
In the book Mother Teresa: In My Own Words, Blessed Mother Teresa tells a story of a time she visited a “magnificent” home for senior citizens. The residents lacked nothing materially, but Mother noticed that no one smiled, and “they were all attentive to the door.”
“Why doesn’t anybody smile? Why do they look constantly at the door?” she asked the religious sister who ran the place.
“The same thing always happens,” the sister answered. “They are always waiting for someone to come visit them. They dream of a son or daughter, some member of the family, or a friend coming through that door to them.”
Mother Teresa goes on to explain that the poverty of these residents was their loneliness. “The poverty of having no one coming to visit them is the poverty that older people feel the most,” she says.
Recently, our family visited a friend in a nursing home. As the elevator doors opened onto her floor, my first sight was a woman in a wheelchair, smiling a big greeting to me and to my children. Over time, I came to realize that this was what the dear woman did all day: She parked herself by the elevator and smiled hello to every visitor who emerged. This was how she got the personal interaction she craved.
As I walked down the hall, I saw a story in every room. In one room, a man lay unmoving with his hands covering his face. In another, someone moaned. In a third, a woman sat up in a chair, looking out the door as if expecting someone. All of these people had one thing in common: They were alone.
A man in a wheelchair, unable to speak, sat in the hallway outside of his room. He mostly stared straight ahead at the walls—but as my children walked past him, his eyes followed them, and the hint of a smile played on his face.
“As It Was in the Beginning”
How many older faces light up when a baby or a child passes by!
Once, several years ago, the manager of a local nursing home asked me to come and pray the Rosary with one of her residents. The woman had suffered a stroke. The only words she was able to say anymore were the prayers of the Rosary, and she loved it when people would say them with her.
When I brought my baby into her room, the woman could not take her eyes off of him. She looked into his eyes, touched his face, and smiled at him while we prayed. It was like a dance—as if they were dancing in front of a mirror. On one side of the mirror was this baby who had no words and no teeth, who smiled and was delighted with everyone and everything. On the opposite side, his reflection was this elderly woman, who had no words and no teeth, who smiled and was delighted with everyone and everything.
We are born into this world as children, and those who live until old age often become childlike once more, as they prepare to enter the door of heaven, where Jesus welcomes the childlike and blesses them for eternity.
It is a gift and a joy to care for a baby, who in his helplessness reminds us of how dependent we all are on our Father. It is also a gift and a joy to care for the elderly, who in their humble dependency on others remind us that the end of our earthly journey is in many ways not unlike the beginning—the prelude to a life beyond anything we can imagine.
Companions on the Journey
The pilgrimage of growing old is not easy. Just as those teenagers lifted up my friend when she fell, we can help lift the spirits of the elderly when their spirits fall.
I would say it is a work of mercy for us to visit them—and it is—but I think it is even more so the other way around. It is a work of mercy for them to visit with us. Whether we visit a relative, a friend, or a stranger; someone in their own home or in a nursing home; someone who is sick or well; we are on the receiving end of the grace that overflows from the long years of their lives.
I don’t write this from the perspective of sanctity. The times I have visited nursing homes are few and far between in relation to my capacity. Often I forget just how much of a difference it makes, and I need an exhortation and a reminder to get back inside those doors. For the door that opens to the elderly is an entranceway to celestial gates.
If only we remember the elderly here on earth and ease their loneliness with our visits, we come closer to heaven by being with them. Even when it seems like they can’t communicate with us, recognize us, or know we’re there, we can show them our love, hug them, smile at them, talk to them, and sit together. No effort spent in love is ever lost.
How much we gain simply by being in the presence of these people who have lived so much—these pilgrims near the end of their journey, who are filled to the brim with life.
“Wisdom is with the aged,
and understanding in length of days.”