What Care for the Elderly Really Costs Us

In Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, he tells this anecdote:

Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: I want to work with the elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for that task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel as if I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”

Commenting on this, Nouwen expounds, “Thus care for the elderly means, first of all, to make ourselves available to the experience of becoming old.” And, in another place he asks, “How can we be fully present to the elderly when we are hiding from our own aging? How can we listen to their pains when their stories open wounds in us that we are trying to cover up?”

This, Nouwen diagnoses, is the true cost to caring for the elderly – that we embrace the vulnerability of our own aging selves.

Are we prepared to dispense with “the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not a gift to be shared”?

Care for the elderly, insists Nouwen, does not only consist in practical acts of service that, in fact, “are often offered in order to keep distance rather than to allow closeness.” Instead, caring costs us our entire aging selves.

“Only as we enter into solidarity with the aging and speak out of common experience, can we help others to discover the freedom of old age,” says Nouwen.

Only by awakening to the realization that we are all aging can we begin to shift our culture from one of segregation to one of solidarity.

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