Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced the winners of their annual "Genius Grant" awards. Among the winners is Marie-Therese Connolly, an attorney and activist who has been awarded $500,000 for her work combating elder abuse in America. It is heartening to see that an organization with the resources and prestige of the MacArthur Foundation has taken note of Connolly's important work.
The silent epidemic of elder abuse is an issue that has long motivated the work of an organization near and dear to my heart, the Center for a Just Society. With so much injustice and suffering in this world, there are many worthy issues that receive the time, attention, and financial resources of philanthropic organizations. Unfortunately, the plight of the elderly often goes overlooked. This problem is exacerbated by a culture that has changed radically over the past several decades, becoming more and more obsessed with youth, more and more self-centered, more and more disconnected from intergenerational family bonds and obligations.
According to prevailing attitudes about aging in America, there is very little to relish about growing older. It is to be delayed and avoided. Old age is not beautiful, it's not glamorous, it's not dignified. There is a sense that the elderly have had their day in the sun, but are no longer capable of making a valuable contribution to society. They should, therefore, retreat to the shadows and wait to die. This is especially true when they suffer from conditions like dementia, which robs them of their reason and steals their memories along with their ability to interact with their environment.
Many families, lacking the ability to provide for the needs of their loved ones, place their elderly relatives in facilities that advertise themselves as caring, safe, nurturing environments, but are in reality profit-driven businesses that care little for the well-being of their wards. Their emphasis is on profits, not people, and they place revenue ahead of their residents. Avoidable pressure ulcers, falls, fractures, infections, malnutrition, dehydration – all are common problems among the institutionalized elderly.
For those that do elect to care for their aging and infirm relatives at home, the motivation is not always benevolent. Connolly discussed one such instance in a recent interview with NPR:
"[O]ne that comes to mind is the story of Ruby Wise. Last year her son Chris was charged with her murder. And what he had done, essentially, is let her rot to death. He was her sole caregiver, spent his days, among other things, playing Internet poker and living off her pension while she literally was imprisoned, by her dementia, in her bed and developed huge pressure sores, many of which were bone-deep, exposing her bones. And she cried out for help loudly for weeks before she died . . . to him, and the neighbors heard. They closed their windows, they didn't respond, and her son put in earplugs."
This account should be enough to sicken anyone with a basic sense of moral decency, particularly those with an ethical grounding in the Christian religion. Christians, maintain that all human beings are of infinite worth, value and dignity. Our value stems not from the level of our economic productivity, but from the fact that we are created in the image a God who loved us so much that he sent His Son to die for us, notwithstanding our sin and frailties. This value is not dependent on our age, size, or level of function. It is unaffected by where we fall on the age continuum and undiminished by the ravages of time.
It will be difficult to muster momentum on the problem of elder abuse in a cultural milieu that embraces a utilitarian spirit and a sliding scale of human dignity. Nevertheless, Christians must be prepared to uphold the rights of the elderly as vigorously as they uphold the rights of the unborn, for surely the elderly are to be counted among the "least of these" to whom we owe a duty of care and concern.
Let us find inspiration in the work of heroes like Marie-Therese Connolly as we strive to raise the issue of elder abuse to the same level of social awareness as that of abortion, human trafficking, and other human rights issues that the Church has worked so hard to eradicate in this world.