Cicero, in his treatise De Senectute (About Old Age), tells of the joys of old age but says little of the sufferings that generally accompany it. These, both physical and mental, are often of such a nature that they allow of few, if any, of such purely natural consolations as may be in some instances and to some degree experienced. The Psalmist (Ps. 89:10) has told us: “The days of our age are three score years and ten [70 years]; and though may be strong that they come to fourscore  years: yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow.” We are familiar with the saying, “A man is as old as he feels.” While a man of eighty may still possess much of the energy of youth and continue working with his intellect, and with his bodily strength still so great that he can take for his recreation and exercise, as did the Victorian statesman, W. E. Gladstone, the felling of trees, yet there are many more who when still in their sixties are “in labour and sorrow”, and are either bedridden or at best can only get about in a bath-chair.
The humiliations that may accompany old age
The physical sufferings that may accompany old age are too numerous to mention, but whatever be their number or nature, they may be more endurable than the mental afflictions and humiliations to which old men are frequently subjected. These old men are fully conscious, for instance, that young men often regard them as antiques, out-dated, doddering old scarecrows, who might with advantage be consigned to a lethal chamber, and so cease to be a troublesome nuisance to the young and healthy world in which they are still living. The “Old Crocks” (as they are sometimes designated) are well aware that often their presence is totally disregarded, that their opinions are not sought for, and that if they do venture to express them they are received with a pitying smile, that hardly falls short of contempt. They are sometimes patronised by the young who condescend to inform them on matters with which the “Old Crocks” were well acquainted before the patronising young had even been well settled in their cradles.
A process of continual intellectual progress?
This has been an age of such material progress that there is the assumption that intellectual and spiritual progress has kept equal pace with it. The old are given to understand that they and their contemporaries did nothing of any account when they were young, and no credit is given them for the foundations on which the very moderns have built. Art and literature, such as they were understood by the “ancients”, are proclaimed by many of the young as quite démodés, and the “de-bunking” – to use the slang of to-day – of such poets, for instance, as Milton and all the romantics of the Lake School, has gone apace. Though some writers of the Victorian age, such as the Brontës, Dickens, and Trollope, are still judged worth reading, there are a great many more who are never considered, even though they wrote more interesting stories, and in far better prose than most of the stuff that so far “this brave new world” has produced.
It is all this false valuation, and a great deal more, that the old may have to submit to now that their years are running out and they are getting nearer to Eternity, where past and present will be seen in their right perspective, that is, of no account in themselves apart from men’s accord with the will of their Creator and their faithful subjection to His paramount rule.
Getting nearer to Eternity, where past and present are seen in their right perspective
But that the old should have to end their days under such humiliations need not to be a cause for repining. On the contrary, they afford the best preparation for their death so soon at hand, if accepted in a cheerful, understanding, and patient spirit. If the old are wise they will be very merciful to the young. They will think of their own youth, of their many sins, perhaps, of sensuality and pride, of the airs of superiority that they assumed, of their self-assurance and arrogance, when they were as intolerant and contemptuous of the old as are so many of the young men of these days. Such a consideration will help them to receive in a spirit of reparation whatever form of suffering they may be asked to bear in their old age.
“Those were the days”
But there is another side to the picture. The conduct of the old may be some justification for the behaviour of the young. Unless a man is something of a saint it is hardly to be expected that he will always be able to restrain himself when he has to deal with a garrulous old man who, at tedious length, is continually speaking on the theme of “those were the days”, who repeats again and again his well-worn chestnuts of jokes, who never ends in telling of his exploits and experiences, that in his bleary eyes may appear so wonderful. In short, the old man may be what is known as “a crashing bore”, to whom all but the most charitable give a wide berth. Let him recognise this, as he can by a little closer observation, and then he will gain considerable merit by ceasing from being an affliction to others.
If the old are wise they will be very merciful to the young
Something has been said of the afflictions and humiliations to which old age is liable; but that no exaggerated picture may be drawn it must be conceded that an old man may often enjoy the solicitude and care of a devoted family, who strive to make his last years on earth as pleasant and happy as possible. Often, too, he may command the respect of the younger generation, who, knowing the good work he has done in his time and the ripe experience of his many years among a variety of men and of interests, will seek his advice and deferentially bow to his judgement. Such are some of the natural joys and consolations that may cheer the old in their declining years. But even were they absent, the supernatural joys, to a devout and fervent Catholic, more than compensate for anything he may be called upon to suffer.
A strong and ardent faith
Indeed, with a strong and ardent faith, he knows that the more he suffers with patience the more efficaciously he will make reparation for whatever has been sinful in his past life and the more certainly escape, in part or perhaps in whole, the temporal punishment and cleansing of Purgatory. What a source of joy it is to him to reflect that he is a member of Christ’s Church and has all the supernatural advantages that such a membership gives: that he can pray, and obtain the comfort of prayer: that he can renew his sorrow in confession and receive absolution for past as well as present sins: that he can be present at the great sacrifice of the Mass, the renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary, and receive often, if not daily, the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ in the great Sacrament of the Eucharist. And in doing all this, his spiritual perceptions will become increasingly more acute, his love of God more intense, the things of this world will no longer be an occasion of sin, for he will have learnt, as the Church so often exhorts us, “to despise earthly things and to love heavenly ones”. He will understand (as perhaps never before has he understood) what an infinite and all-satisfying happiness awaits him.
Infinite and all-satisfying happiness
Living in the world of to-day, where hardships and trials of every kind have accumulated, the old man might rightly feel that they bear on him more hardly than on the comparatively young. He may have been accustomed for the greater part of his life to conditions that were far more comfortable and pleasant, but now, what with shortage of food and of fuel, to say nothing of the loss of long-enjoyed gratifications, this world can no longer be a place in which he would wish, on natural grounds, for a prolonged soujourn. And so, grown wiser with years and experience, he can prepare himself the better for release by death, a death that will hold little or no dread, for as he gets closer to God he will see it only as the entrance to that truer and fuller life which his Redeemer came on this earth to give and to give ever more abundantly.
Jesus came to give life and to give it ever more abundantly
Men cling to this world because so many of them have never even glimpsed another, but the old man who as a fervent Catholic has lived his religion will have learnt the full import of St John’s warning: “Love not the world nor the things of the world; for all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life.” He has now lost all illusions.He knows that this world holds only a very small minority of God’s creatures (many of them, alas, leading a blind and stumbling life), and that in dying he will be joining the vast and overwhelming majority, among whom are countless saints, the very élite among men; the myriad ranks of archangels and angels in all the splendour of their ineffable glory; and, highest in the heavenly creation, that great and peerless Queen, the Virgin Mother of God who he can claim as his own Mother too, and, greatest of all in that resplendent company, Him who as Man was on earth his Redeemer and dearest Friend, and who as God in heaven is his inexhaustible and eternal reward.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949