Bernardo M. Villegas
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Living Long and Happy Lives (Part 3)

          “The Sky Gets Dark, Slowly,” is the title of a best seller by Chinese author Zhou Daxin who won the Mao Dun literary prize in China.  The novel is touted to be  a “sensitive exploration of old age and the complex, hidden emotional worlds of the elderly in a  rapidly ageing population.”   As mentioned above, of the approximately 1.4 billion people in China, 17.3 percent belong to the elderly.  That’s a whopping 242 million ageing Chinese putting tremendous pressure on a disappearing young labor force.  The future economic growth of China is seriously endangered by this ageing crisis.  Even the decision a few years ago of the Chinese leadership to reverse the one-child policy has not prevented  the continuing fall in the fertility rate.  The population of elderly people in China is bigger than the populations of all countries in the world, except four, i.e. China, India, the US and Indonesia.   Zhou Daxin has hit a nerve when he wrote:  “…Many elderly speak as though they know everything, but of old age they are in fact as ignorant as children.  Many elderly are in fact completely unprepared for what they are to face when it comes to getting old and the road that lies ahead of them.”

         In an exclusively secularist environment, which does not take into account that there is a life hereafter, some of the usual advice given to ageing people can be summarised as follows:  (1)  The people by your side will inevitably grow smaller in number.  If you happen to outlive your peers, including your spouse, you should be prepared for days of emptiness, learning how to live alone, enjoying and embracing solitude.  (2)  No matter how prominent and famous you were, ageing will always transform you into just another ordinary person.  You should no longer expect to be acclaimed.  Learn to stand quietly in one corner and resist the temptation of being envious or grumbling.  3)  It is possible that you will have all types of health-related challenges, i.e. fractures, cardio-vascular blockages, brain atrophy, cancer, etc.  You may have to suffer illnesses and ailments.  To minimize the possibility of being visited with all types of sicknesses, while you are still physically able, do regular physical exercise, sleep for seven to eight hours a day and avoid unhealthy food and drinks.  4) If you are unfortunate, be prepared for spending the last years of your life in bed, returning to the infant state.  Others will look after you as did your mothers when you were born.  The only difference is that the caregiver may not be able to give you the same loving and tender care as your mothers.  Lie still and don’t be difficult; remember to be grateful.  5) Beware of swindlers and scammers who assume that the elderly have lots of savings and will be constantly devising schemes to cheat them of their money.  Hold your money close to you and spend it wisely.

         Fortunately for those who believe that there is heaven waiting for us when we leave this planet, St. John Paul II wrote before he passed away a letter to the elderly.  The former Pope  and now canonised saint reminded the elderly that man remains for ever made “in the image of God,” and each stage of life has its own beauty and its own tasks.  Indeed, in the  word of God, old age is so highly esteemed that long life is seen as a sign of divine favour.  In the case of Abraham, in whom the privilege of old age is stressed, this favour takes the form of a promise:  ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.  I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse; in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  The Pope then enumerates other outstanding examples of the elderly blessed by God in Sacred Scriptures:  Moses, who was an old man when God entrusted him with the mission of leading the Chosen People out of Egypt; Tobit, who humbly and courageously resolved to keep God’s Law;  Eleazar, whose martyrdom bore witness to an exceptional generosity and strength; Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the  Baptist;  Simeon, who had long awaited the Messiah and Anna, a widow of eighty four,  both of whom were present when the Child Jesus was presented in the Temple by his parents. 

         St. John Paul II stressed in his Letter to the Elderly the fact that the teaching and language of the Bible present old age as a “favourable time” for bringing life to its fulfilment and , in Gods’ plan for each person, as a time when everything comes together and enables us better to grasp life’s meaning and to attain “wisdom of heart”.  “An honourable old age comes not with the passing to time,” observes the Book of Wisdom, “nor can it be measured in terms of years; rather, understanding is the hoary crown for men and an unsullied life, the attainment of old age.”  Old age is the final stage of human maturity and a sign of God’s blessing.

         Because of the value of the elderly in every society, St. John Paul II commended all those social programs which enable the elderly to continue to attend to their physical well-being, their intellectual development and their personal relationships, as well as those enabling them to make themselves useful and to put their time, talents and experience at the service of others.  In this way the capacity to enjoy life as Gods’ primordial gift is preserved and increases.  Such a capacity to enjoy life in no way conflicts with that desire for eternity which grows within people of deep spiritual experiences as the lives of the saints bear witness.

         I would like to share with my fellow senior citizens (and those who are just beginning this stage in their lives by turning 60 or 65) the parting advice of St. John Paul II, who himself lived up to a ripe old age:  “I encourage each of you to live with serenity the years that the Lord has granted you.  I feel a spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this point of my life, after more than twenty years of ministry on the throne of Peter and as we wait the arrival, now imminent, of the Third Millennium.  Despite the limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life.  For this I thank the Lord.  It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God!”  Truly, the elderly who continue to do the will of God are in the enviable position of being at the threshold of their new home of everlasting happiness in the bosom of their Creator..  For comments, my email address is