Wednesday, August 21, 2013

National Senior Citizens Day

In a society in which now virtually every special interest group has its day or week of month, it makes sense that there should be a National Senior Citizens Day to recognize the contributions we senior citizens make to our communities. In fact, however, I had never heard of it before, but discovered this morning that National Senior Citizens Day  is observed annually on August 21. I guess that's only fitting that I just discovered it this year, since I only officially became a senior citizen just a few months ago!
Ironically, August 21 was my grandmother's birthday. The only one of my four grandparents whom I personally knew, she lived to be 90 and would have been 146 today. When I was a boy, she was the oldest person in our home, my oldest relative, and probably the oldest person I knew at all. There were lots of people older than I was, of course. But she was really "old," the most "senior" person I knew. So most of my first impressions of senior status - or, as we called it then, old age - were based on my experience of her.  Her family was her life, and I took great comfort in her love for me. She was a living link with Italy and with the experience of immigration.  She had a great love for the Church and its worship and evidently passed that love on to me. She was a great example of  a life-long commitment to faith and family that was enriched rather than diminished by age and time.
The euphemism "senior citizen" was, as I recall, a creation of the Kennedy years. Significantly, it entered our vocabulary just as the different generations were starting to separate into distinct publics (and consumer niches), and the common cross-generational world was irrevocably splintering. I wonder what the experience is today of senior citizens for most younger people and whether we can get beyond the separation of seniors into just another special interest group - a very large and powerful interest group with more political and economic clout than the young. Privileging the past is important. A society that marginalizes its seniors suffers an irreparable loss. But privileging the past in an exclusive way that prejudices the future is problematic for a society.
The senior experience is also and inevitably an experience of coming to terms with limits - physical limits to what one can do, limits to what what can continue to expect or hope for, the imminent limit to one's lifespan and what one cherishes in life. It's natural and normal to get old and in its own way a good thing, but to appreciate it one must come to terms with and get beyond the reality and the experience of being diminished.
I recently read a prayer by a now deceased Paulist, Fr. Edward H. Peters (1900-1992), who was already an ":older Father" when I joined the community. Had she been able to read and speak English, my grandmother could have prayed it!
I am an oldster!
I've found it hard to accept, Lord,
I guess because I did not understand
what it means to be an oldster.
This much is easy to understand:
I had a youngster's idea
of what it means to be old.
I always thought of it
as happening to someone else.
Now it's gradually coming home to me
that I have entered a new station in life.
Help me, O Lord, to understand better
what has happened to me.
What new obligations have I assumed?
How should I deal with the new situations
in which I find myself?
I have been used to thinking of old age
as a time of declining powers;
but now it is coming home to me
that it also brings new opportunities
and new influence.
I thank you, Lord, for promoting me
to this new station in life.
Help me to fill it well
in the name of the Father
and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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