It has been said of the many societal problems that emerged during the pandemic, that COVID may not have caused them as much as it exposed them. When it comes to the terrible toll that this disease took on the elderly, many would agree that the sense of isolation, physical vulnerability and need for good healthcare pre-dated the arrival of this latest pandemic.  So many older people have been chronically underserved and left on their own to navigate through very difficult times.

That is why the decision by Pope Francis in 2021 to institute World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly did not come a moment too soon. And, while the Pope asks that we give special attention to older people on that special day each year, he has made it a point to frequently speak on the subject and has clearly shown that this is not a once-a-year calling.  This is every day, in every place, and in many different ways – the elderly are with us and we need each other.

This initiative by the Pope is an invaluable gift to us all.  And each of us have the opportunity to respond in kind by taking the Holy Father’s advice. He asks us to recognize that the elderly, despite any physical or cognitive limitations, always have something to offer us, to teach us, to help us.  And there is much that we can give to make their lives happier, healthier, safer and filled with purpose.

But in order to do that, we must be very intentional.  The world has changed a great deal over the last few generations, and contemporary culture has become inhospitable to regularly spending time with our elderly family members, fellow parishioners and friends. 

When I grew up in a small town in northern New Jersey, my grandmother lived around the corner, my great aunts and their families lived next door to me and my great-grandmother lived up the road.  We were always together.  When I finished my chores at home, I was sent to help out at my grandmother’s.  We spent fun time together – going to the movies and bowling.  There were endless games of Scrabble and Canasta with the family.  We had Sunday dinners after church together.  

While that way of life may still exist in some first-generation families, it is not so common for the vast majority of us.  Families with younger children are on the go 24/7 and often struggle to work in an occasional visit to older relatives. Few families live in such close proximity to one another as when I was young, so there are logistical challenges to overcome. Technology has the potential to keep us all connected, but a handful of quick text exchanges is no substitute for actually spending time together, sharing stories and laughter, having a meal, etc.  

When we spend more time with older family members, we become more familiar with their unique needs as well as their special gifts.  We learn during happy and healthy days what they want and expect when times are not as easy and difficult decisions have to be made.  We make it clear to them that they are not a burden, and we are not going away.

This month’s IN FOCUS section offers some insight into the challenges that the elderly face and the gifts that they are able to share if they are invited.  It also includes a sampling of the many messages from Pope Francis to help us strengthen our relationships with some of the most important people in our lives – our older loved ones. 

We need to remember that our focus on grandparents and the elderly is much more than an annual observance and something that happens naturally.  It requires constancy and intentionality.  And it is well worth it.