The Call to Value and Honor Society's Oldest Members
Tuesday, October 01, 2013 by Monsignor Michael M. Boland

“The elderly need to be treated with love.”  That was one of the underlying messages of Pope John Paul’s Letter to the Elderly, which he released 14 years ago in October of 1999.  This historic letter should guide us this fall as lawmakers get back to the difficult task of implementing budget cuts in the face of an aging population.

Pope John Paul reminded us that the elderly are the guardians of our past, and the keys to our future.  He cautioned us not to overvalue physical strength and vigor, for our essential human dignity does not lessen with physical or mental deterioration.  On the contrary, the passing of years can bring wisdom, a longer perspective, and a better grasp of the meaning of life that should be a resource for the rest of society.  We must honor our elders and ensure that our culture is one in which elderly people are treated with esteem and respect so they can grow old with dignity.

Catholic Charities has certainly taken Pope John Paul’s message to heart over the past 14 years, growing and expanding our programs so that we can provide affordable housing, in-home caregiving services, meal programs, and social services to tens of thousands of poor seniors each year.  Each senior that is served by Catholic Charities can feel God’s love and mercy in our tender care and deep concern for them.  

And yet, even with the tremendous growth of Catholic Charities senior services over the years, it simply will not be enough to meet the growing needs of our aging population.

It is stunning that between 8,000 and 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day and will continue to do so until the year 2030!  The news media has called this phenomenon “the silver tsunami,” lending a powerful visual image to the aging of our baby boomers.  By 2030, almost one out of every five Americans—some 72 million people—will be 65 years or older.  

Sadly, many older Americans are falling into poverty as they age, and as individual life expectancy increases.   One of the biggest drivers of poverty in old age is failing health and the associated medical costs.  Nearly 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic disease such as cancer, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, or cardiovascular disease, and many suffer from multiple chronic conditions.   With rising health care and prescription medication costs, it is not hard to understand why these conditions deplete savings and force many seniors into poverty.  Chronic health conditions also increase the need for in-home medical, nutrition, and social services, and possibly placement into assisted living or nursing homes.

Safe, affordable housing for seniors is also an issue as property tax rates outpace increases in Social Security benefits, and the quality of housing stock diminishes in poor neighborhoods.  Many seniors spend half or more of their monthly income on housing.  Even seniors who are lucky enough to get subsidized housing are often forced to live in dilapidated, unsafe apartments because there is just not enough quality housing available.   

It is unfortunate that the needs of vulnerable seniors are rising at a time when federal and state budgets are bursting at the seams.   As Catholics and Christians, it is our duty to urge lawmakers not to cut the very programs which enable us to care for our elderly with the dignity and respect they deserve.  Let us heed the words of Pope John Paul II and build a society that honors and values our oldest members, and above all, treats them with love.

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