That awkward moment when an old person is taking forever to fumble through his wallet to find his credit card in the express checkout lane at the supermarket, as photos of his grandchildren and his AARP card fall to the ground *rolls eyes*; that other awkward moment when your friend’s eighty-two year old aunt is forty-five minutes into the story of how she met her husband in high school, and has not even begun to get close to “the really good part [!]”. Or that painfully uncomfortable moment when your grandmother introduces herself to your friends while still wearing her pajamas and coughing on them as she leans over to give them an open mouth kiss (she forgot, once again, to take her medicine last night). We all know the dictum of common sense morality: “respect your elders.” But what exactly is the protocol when elderly people start to become a nuisance in one’s life or just plain-old useless?
I always understood respect for the elderly as a matter of that assumed code of decorum that everyone was supposed to know about. The reason why that code existed…I’ve yet to be informed of. I always thought that one must always be nice to old people because we are supposed to feel bad for them. But for which aspect of their lives should I feel bad? That they suffer? That they are no longer young and hip and that their “glory days” are over? That they no longer contribute anything valuable to society?
When we face the facts, most elderly people do not contribute very much to society. If anything, they just make us feel uncomfortable, annoyed, and drain our bank accounts with their medical bills. They also nag us, criticize us, slow down our schedule, and often smell pretty bad (try living with an old lady with dementia who has forgotten how to wipe herself after using the bathroom). I suppose the only useful things they offer us are their somewhat funny childhood stories (provided they don’t exceed 5 minutes in length) and the occasional check and sweets during holidays. Other than that, though, the elderly become more of a burden on society than anything else.
But we are not supposed to say that! Heaven forbid we express how we actually feel. “That’s not nice.” It may not be nice…but is it true? The problem with a moral standard whose criteria relies solely upon emotivism and sentimentality is that it does an excellent job of evading certain essential questions, most particularly: is it true? Under the same guise of “being nice” and feeling bad for people can someone make the argument that the elderly should be encouraged to exercise their “right” to choose to die. “The elderly (and anyone who is fatally ill) should not have to suffer this way! This is why they deserve the right to physician-assisted suicide…You know, because we should feel bad to force them to suffer this way until the end. That wouldn’t be very nice of us to refuse them the choice to do that.” Really? You know what would be nicer, if you actually suffered with them until the end…if you did all that was in your power to accompany them and aid them in their hour of need. This is when the emotivist approach to morality starts to rear its ugly head. It can easily mask individualism as compassion and empathy.
If the family of a dying person had to choose between letting their family member select PAS and spending time, money, and energy to help them to die in the most peaceful and dignified way as possible, they would be forced to face those essential questions that transcend being nice and feeling bad for people. Is it true that suicide is a moral evil? Is it truly valuable to regard the life of a decrepit elderly person with respect?
My own experience with my elderly family members and coworkers have been anything but comfortable and pleasant. They range from being painstakingly frustrating to luminously revelatory. All four of my grandparents (Deo gratias!) are facing some form of health defect, whether physical or mental. After having started working full time, I realized just how demanding it is to take care of them in their moments of need. I am forced to ask if it is truly valuable to accompany them, especially in the moments when I have to rearrange my work schedule to take my grandmother to the hospital after having fallen out of bed, or have to cancel plans with a friend so that I can stay home with my grandfather to give him his medicine. One of my grandfathers often asks why we don’t just consider PAS. He feels that his life has become a burden on our family and doesn’t want us to have to deal with him as his Parkinson’s runs its course. I often joke “well I could save us even more time and money by just pushing you down the stairs now.” But this question is truly pressing, for both himself and my family, as we face the financial and emotional tolls of remaining with him as he approaches his death.
By utilitarian standards, the life of a dying elderly person is indeed useless and a burden on society. It is not efficient to keep them alive. It is not pleasant for one to suffer in pain until their death, nor is it comfortable to watch them do so. It is inconvenient to go out of your way to help grandma put her clothes on and even more inconvenient to wipe her after using the bathroom. But are these utilitarian standards of efficiency and comfort truly adequate to judge the value of a human life?
The risk of relying on emotivist arguments is that they do not allow for the articulation of reasonable assertions about objective truth and goodness. The further one relies on this mode of thinking, the more the standards of the value of human life and of loving relationships are relativized. The only way one can look at the elderly person’s life with value is if that value is intrinsic to their existence. A notion of personhood that is based on the extent to which the person’s life is useful and convenient has been the motivating force by several dangerous sociohistorical phenomena including Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the African Slave Trade, and the eugenicist ideology of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. If it is indeed true that the value of personhood is intrinsic to existence, meaning the value is “given” rather than merited, then we don’t have the “inherent right” to take our own life or anyone else’s.
In addition to their lives having value in themselves, the elderly possess something else that merits respect, beyond pity and decorum: experience. The experience of those who have lived longer than myself is of great value to me. No, they might not “get” what it means to be a millennial, but they do understand what it means to be human, simply because of the fact that they have been a human for much longer than I have. Their wisdom is truly valuable to us, even if they came of age in a culture that differs greatly from our own. I desire to have the freedom to look at my own experiences with discernment and clarity, and following one who has had more experiences than myself can only help me as I pursue the realization of this desire.
So no, I don’t necessarily enjoy the frustrating and time-consuming demands of my grandparents’ illnesses. It actually is a burden on our family to stay with them as they age. It would be much easier to “keep them hidden,” as Pope Francis once said, or to euthanize them. But in order to look at such a dramatic decisions as putting the elderly in nursing homes and choosing PAS, we must look at the totality of the factors involved in the present moment. As much as it may be a “burden” to deal with my grandparent’s illnesses, I cannot ignore the many benefits to staying with them during this time.
First, I have seen decades-long family rifts be reconciled. We are forced to face “what matters most” as the shadow of death looms on the horizon. Petty bickering is quashed when the family has to gather in the hospital waiting room to hear of the fate of our elderly family members.
Second, I have been forced to look at my own time in a more serious way. Is the real criteria for judging the value of my time and work a matter of efficiency? I realize that I desire more from my time than mere utility and successful outcomes-I want beauty and meaning, I want a true value. Accompanying my “inefficient” grandparents has allowed for that desire to emerge more dramatically. I don’t want to fixate on my weaknesses and failures at work, but instead want to delve more deeply into the meaning of the tasks in front of me. I’m less inclined to spend endless hours scrolling through my Instagram feed, and more inclined to look for a more fascinating and genuine way to engage with reality as it is given to me in the present moment.
Finally, actually sitting down to listen to my grandparents’ stories has taught me much about my own relationships, work, and simply about what it means to be human. The wisdom of their life experiences has illumined much of the experiences I face in my daily life. At the end of the day, I want my life to be valuable because I exist, rather than having to earn it. I want to learn how to live, work, and love, and I need others to show me how to do so. And quite frankly, I rather my existence be regarded for its true value than for people to “be nice”or feel bad for me.