Thought for the Day - Bishop Tom Butler

Good morning. The recent call for the creation of a Dignity Code for the elderly reminded me of an incident from early in my ministry. I was a curate at a church in a sea-side town. During the winter season many of our elderly, too frail to come to church in bad weather were living alone in small rooms in some of the under-occupied hotels. We clergy decided that they must be very lonely and I was given the task of creating a rota so that each could be visited every week.

My ministry then took me to Central Africa for five years, but on my return I spent a weekend in my former parish. I paid a visit to one of the elderly folk in her cosy room. “How are you, Miss Wilson?” I asked. “Oh, I’m fine dear”, she replied, “There’s just one problem. It seems that every time I sit down in the afternoon to watch some racing on the television there’s a knock at the door, and there’s somebody from the church come to see me, and you have to be polite, don’t you, but it is an irritation.”
It seems that my visiting rota, prepared with care and love, was the bane of her life. Perhaps we clergy at an earlier stage should have asked Miss Wilson what she would have appreciated, rather than assuming that we already knew. A wise pastor once said, “Don’t treat your neighbour as yourself, her tastes may be different.” This understanding lies at the heart of the proposed dignity code. It demands that elderly people must be allowed to speak for themselves before actions are taken which affect their welfare.

William Shakespeare wrote of the seven ages of man, starting with the puking infant and the whining school boy, through the lover, the soldier, the authority of the middle aged justice; then the slippered pantaloon, ending with the dependency of old age, sans teeth sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. But I find the categories or stages found in Hinduism more helpful and positive. It speaks of four ages, the student, the householder, the sage, the ascetic, with activity in the world dominating the first stages of life, then in later life, the wisdom of experience being shared with upcoming generations, and there’s an increasing reflection upon ultimate truths of life and death.

But what is significant for all of us in this understanding is that each stage of life has its own inherent importance and dignity. One is not more significant, productive or useful than another. Each stage matters because whether young, old or middle each has something unique to offer. I suppose that that understanding undergirds the Christian social teaching of everyone contributing to the common good. So yes, let’s have a dignity code for the elderly, and for the young, and for the middle aged. We all need it.

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