A Chinese proverb says that having an older person in the home is a treasure. As someone who has had my grandmother live with my family for my entire life, I could not agree more.
Since I was very young, I have learned to appreciate the elderly. While there are many who would agree with me, some sadly do not have such a high estimation of the older members of our society.
This problem stems from the fact that in the West have a tendency to think that economic and material prosperity is all we need to be happy.
If we equate ownership of material things with happiness, we can then conclude that the elderly are happy as long as they are provided for.
Alas, this view ignores the truth that there is more to life than economic prosperity. So many elderly people have all the comforts of life but are unhappy because their families have nearly forgotten them.
I could write a whole column just listing the ways the elderly have been neglected. Many live in terrible poverty without proper access to health care. Many more are actually abused by their own families. Plenty live in nursing homes with unsanitary conditions and uncaring workers.
But even if all of these shortcomings were addressed, there would still be a serious problem. Ours is not a culture that values the aged.
Mother Teresa constantly repeated an experience she had when she visited a nursing home in England. The nursing home was brand-new and state of the art. The occupants had everything they could ever want: beautiful and cleanly living quarters, excellent food and quality health care.
Despite this, none of them smiled. She asked one of the nurses why that was so and the woman responded that they were always like that: every day they waited for a call or a visit from a family member, but no one ever called or came. As a result, they were mostly lonely, sad and depressed.
Human beings need more than our monetary support. We already know this is to be true with children.
Parents who merely provided food and shelter for their children without spending a good amount of time with them and showing them love would be terribly remiss.
However, this is exactly what some in our society have done to the elderly.
This is not a problem without a solution. Many of us have grandparents who are still alive that we can readily visit or call. Some have elderly neighbors in need of companionship.
Those who have some free time could even volunteer at a nursing home.
And we can all try as hard as we can to support our parents as they grow older.
If each one of us changes our attitude toward the elderly, then society’s attitude will change as well.
One might wonder why I call for a philosophical approach to change in lieu of institutional reform.
After all, I could just as easily call for laws to help stop elderly abuse, improve nursing homes and fix social security.
These are very noble things and I hope good, able people work hard to accomplish them.
However, while I would love nothing more than to change the flawed institutions of our country, I have no illusions about my current ability to do so.
A column in the school paper will not have reverberations around the world; a negative word from me will not set the pundits in Washington buzzing and make George W. Bush tremble.
But perhaps my sentiments will inspire some small number of people to do something to help the elderly in their own lives.
Then, at least on a small level, change will be affected. In the end, that is all that matters.