COMMENTARY: Wisdom of the elderly can show us how to live after COVID-19

In the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of elderly people died in institutions that should have protected these vulnerable members of society. By contrast, families protected their elderly much more. But in all of it, a new document asserts, the need remains for a new vision for how society views care for the elderly.

On Feb. 9, the Pontifical Academy for Life, in collaboration with the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, published the document, “Old Age: Our Future. The elderly after the pandemic.”

The document spells out a vision of an affluent society that doesn’t exclude the elderly, but builds its well-being through intergenerational communication, so that the elderly can fulfill their lives calmly and satisfactorily. It is all about building tomorrow’s society both for the elderly and for young people, who are the future elderly.

This prophetic document urges a conversion into a new era. It urges us to reconsider the intrinsic value of aging, the final destination of human life and the eternity of human existence, in order to infuse the new era with a renewed humanism.

Especially for Japan, the most aging country in the world with a declining birthrate, these suggestions call for our anthropological conversion. They also appeal to the traditional Japanese idealized image of the human being, that is the relational person, not an atomistic individual.

For centuries, harmony has been considered one of the greatest of virtues in Japan. We attach great importance to harmony between people and every living creature. Filial piety to the elderly and the weak has traditionally been expected.

There are proverbs like “Better than a tortoise shell is the wisdom of age (The wisdom that comes from experience is precious)” and “Assist the weak and resist the strong,” etc.

However, after World War II, national policies, a legal system and a compulsory education based on atomistic individualism were introduced in Japan. Due to that, we were able to escape from totalitarian nationalism, but that sudden change also brought about every sort of disunion between humans and nature, theory and practice, the youth and the elderly, the winner and the loser and so on.

In the artificial high-tech central metropolitan area, covered with a forest of skyscrapers, crowded with single people living apart from their families or at most living in a nuclear family, the law of the strongest prevails. Bullying, seclusion and suicide are not uncommon in school life.

The concept of the relational person based on the personalist anthropology could mend the disunion, without eliminating alien elements but integrating them in harmony.

Some depopulated and aging provincial cities, blessed with abundant natural resources and rich with Japanese traditional religious culture, have sought to create regional communities of mutual aid, rejecting the segregation of the generations.

For example, Toyama prefecture is promoting the Compact City Project to foster intergenerational symbiosis in cooperation with our university and the landscape gardening industry.

Toyama Day Care System, introduced by one retired nurse 30 years ago, has grown up to be a national project. Elderly persons and handicapped children live together in a traditional big house designed for a three-generation household, supported by family members and various care persons. In this remarkable case, the condition of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder improved.

The Japanese greatest generation, who lost state Shintoism after World War II, had devoted religious minds oriented toward national common good. It is also well known that a not-insignificant number of intellectual elder persons have been baptized in Japan.

It was not difficult for them to translate their vision from the national common good to the universal and supreme common good.

If we could help the elderly adequately, the benefits would feed back into the youth, because the elderly could serve as the incarnation of unconditional love, especially for their grandchildren.

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Etsuko Akiba is a professor at the University of Toyama in Japan and is on the board of directors of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

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