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Respecting our seniors in the autumn of their years

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How all things flash, how all things flare!

Time is the school in which we learn

Time is the fire in which we burn

The June-July months occupy a special place in the Vincentian social calendar. First, thousands of Vincentian parents who have invested enormous time, effort, and financial resources to place their children through school embrace the opportunity to celebrate their children’s successful graduation from school or their promotion to a higher form in secondary schools or grade level in primary schools. And we place extraordinary value on those children who are now making the transition from primary school to secondary school.{{more}}

Second, however, Carnival commands a central place in the Vincentian social calendar and thousands of Vincentians abroad return home to join the tens of thousands of Vincentians who take to the streets and the Carnival parties to celebrate Vincy Mas. And in the words of Becket, “the in-betweeners, the not so young and the not so old” join in these festivities.

Becket’s observation, however, points to a rather startling convergence between the Carnival calendar and the school calendar. They do not simply overlap in time. They are also acutely focused on the young, the not-so-young, and the not-so-old.

The calendar of life, however, does not follow the Vincentian social calendar. Biology insists that we grow old. Hence, in a population of more than 100,000 people there are thousands of Vincentians (seventy years and older) whose life rhythms stray far away from the parades, and sometimes the charades, of our June-July genuflections. They have no more graduations in them. They will hardly dance any more. And every day they face an assortment of issues peculiar to the elderly; their social calendar is one that is by and large a consequence of their biological calendar.

Let us spare a thought then for our elderly; indeed, let us do more than that. Their decline in physical functions and any resultant distress can be easily mitigated by making available to our seniors exercise programmes that would allow them to maintain effective mobility deep into their nineties. Adequate nutritional programmes can help them ward over the ravages of diabetes and high blood pressure. Reading programmes can be particularly helpful in fending off cognitive decline, which manifests itself through memory loss and other kinds of neurological disorders.

Some, of course, would lie beyond the reach of such interventions and need deeper personal assistance. But here too, we need to do so with grace, respect, and an awareness that our humanity is measured, not by what we do to the most powerful among us, but by what we do to the least among us.

There are, of course, deeper lessons to be learned in all of this. None of us are here forever. Each generation has an obligation to itself, to the generation that came before it, and the generation that comes after it. In fact, the very notion of what it means to be a Vincentian rests upon the thread of existence that ties us across generations. Were it not for our seniors who laid down the platform of understandings that bind us together, we would constantly have to re-create that compact. As the reservoir of our historical knowledge and the living archives of who we were and what we have become, our seniors deserve our undying respect.

Our seniors, therefore, ought not to be seen as an appendage or burden to our existence. Indeed, time has afforded them the one thing that only time can grant: the wisdom of perspective. In the urgencies and immediacies, and the foibles and the passions which we place on our present circumstances, it is our seniors who can remind us in the words of Delmore Schwartz:

“How all things flash, how all things flare

Time is the school in which we learn,

Time is the fire in which we burn.”

We do not begrudge the celebrations of the young or for the young. But the tide of time is unstoppable. And one day, they too would be facing the autumn of their years. May their wisdom then, be expressed now as grace towards the elderly. For, as they too would discover in a way only the elderly can, we are, all of us, prisoners of time.

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