It is both an underappreciated detail and a morbid irony that, as it celebrates the presidential inauguration of a man nearing his ninth decade on earth, the American Left shows more scorn than ever for the elderly and old age. Take, for instance, Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and the brother of Obama’s White House chief of staff, whom Biden named to a COVID-19 Advisory Board. The good doctor so loathes the twilight years that he published at The Atlantic—reliable home of ever-so-literary sociopaths—an odious and depressing essay titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”
Therein, Emanuel insists that once one has passed the stage of effective productivity—when the mind slows and the physical faculties fade, when one cannot give much back to society and must rely on it instead—life is not worth living. It’s a gruesome argument, one that assumes implicitly that life has no innate value beyond what we are able to produce. But its spirit is startlingly common, though it rarely receives such candid expression; that we are mere cogs in a machine is a fundamental assumption of a number of ideologies that dominate today, and that the elderly and infirm are worn outcogs (and therefore of no value) is a logical conclusion from the premise.
If we had any need for a dramatic illustration of our society’s disregard for the elderly, Andrew Cuomo gave it to us. In March 2020, early in the COVID-19 crisis, the New York governor—who, like Biden, happens to be Catholic—mandated that nursing homes must take in residents who had contracted the virus, so long as they were “medically stable.” By May, recognizing the disaster he had caused, Cuomo rescinded the order—but not before 4,500 COVID-19-positive seniors were placed in New York nursing homes, according to the Associated Press. As we know well by now, seniors are far more vulnerable to the virus than are young and otherwise healthy people.
The decision to import COVID-19 patients into the nursing homes—thus freeing up public-health resources to be focused toward younger patients—resulted in about 15,000 deaths. Worried that then-President Trump would criticize his negligence, Cuomo then lied consistently about the number of nursing home deaths, understating the total by as much as half. As of last week, the scandal is the subject of a federal investigation—though it hasn’t stopped the governor from accepting an Emmy award “in recognition of his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and his masterful use of TV to inform and calm people around the world.”
These scandals naturally come to mind when reading the Pontifical Academy for Life’s memorandum on the elderly after the pandemic, “Old Age: Our Future.” But the problem addressed therein by the Vatican goes far beyond the egregious abuses of Governor Cuomo or the misanthropic pathologies of Dr. Emanuel. Far more than active disdain or culpable neglect, a general apathy is our society’s worst offense against its elderly members.
As the memorandum notes, even in Europe (where we can hardly place the blame on Andrew Cuomo), as many as half of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes. Surely some of this disproportion can be accounted for by the elderly’s increased vulnerability, but certainly not all of it. The full explanation is fairly obvious: Even without horrible leaders at the top, our default practice of tucking the elderly away in state or corporate group homes is a fundamentally bad system.
This is not to say that such homes don’t provide a necessary service; on the contrary, many senior citizens require special medical and personal care which they receive in nursing homes. But the obvious drawbacks require us to rethink the way we go about providing this care—and, as the Vatican memo calls for, to consider an alternative that allows the entirety of life, from birth to death, to take place where it belongs, within the family and the home.
In the depersonalized, paradoxically isolating group homes that are currently so common, the family bonds and obligations that ensure proper care (not to mention a continually happy life) for the elderly are stripped away. This is the best-case scenario too, not even considering the subpar standards and care at many such facilities. But even in the absence of those more obvious abuses, the vast majority of our society’s seniors are forced to endure the long process of dying virtually alone.
But it is not just they who suffer from this arrangement. We, too, are deprived of a great deal when we place distance between ourselves and those who are older and wiser. It is a great blessing that in our modern world three and four generations of a family often coexist at the same time. We squander that blessing when we fail to actually connect these generations—to connect our past to our present and our future. It is a fracture of the family, of society’s most fundamental building block; such fractures are one of the chief evils that good, Catholic politicians ought to fight against.
Of course, we already know all of this. New York’s Catholic governor certainly should know it, as well. Of course, the Christian life is centered on the family, but the Pontifical Academy reminds us also that the biblical worldview entails a profound reverence for old age. “Honor thy father and thy mother” is a divine command; just as it does not cease to be so when a child turns 18, it is not erased when the parent turns 65.
Likewise, our biblical tradition is filled with long-lived holy men and women who, though they loved God and were eager to be joined with Him, can hardly have wished for death at 75. They are a gift to us, just as long life is a gift to them (Ezekiel Emanuel should be taking notes), and our behavior should make clear our respect for those God-given gifts. One can only imagine what reckless damage Andrew Cuomo might have done to Methuselah’s aging body. (The data show that COVID-19 is exceptionally dangerous to 969-year-olds.)
Catholics, taking our cue from John Paul II, often lament what we call the “culture of death.” In an obvious way, it is a true and necessary descriptor for the society that sacrifices a million infants a year through highly regimented, highly corporatized means that are both entirely legal and vigorously lauded in every outlet of cultural influence available to our elites.
But in another, quieter sense, nothing could be further from the truth. What we actually have is a culture that is absolutely terrified of death—so much so that not only does it sanitize and obscure its most brutal aspects with language that defies reality, but it even shuttles its elderly out of sight, banishing from the life of society those who would be both strong connections to the past and constant reminders of our inevitable future.
We have seen, this year, where such denial leads us: A society that cannot grapple with death is rocked to its core when death becomes undeniable. If you choose to ignore mortality while you actually have the choice, it’s going to hit you a whole lot harder when that choice gets taken away. The years of denial are apt to leave your soul, and everything else, woefully unprepared when the decisive moment comes. Not to worry though—you’ll get an Emmy for your troubles.