"When you are old, another will gird you and lead you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18). So Jesus prophesied St. Peter’s death in old age. The saying, however, has always had a gnomic quality for me, as if it applied in some sense to us all. No exegete I have read has ever indicated a connection with any first-century proverb. All the same, it has the ring of folk wisdom, like the Greeks’ “Call no man happy until he dies.” Scripture offers many models of late old age. Moses dies after praying Joshua’s troops to victory. Eleazar goes to a martyr’s death, refusing to eat pork at the command of Antiochus Epiphanes and offers to young people an example of nonviolent resistance. Anna and Simeon remain faithful to prayer and to their hope for a messiah. The prophecy of Peter’s death is unique for intermingling old age, dependency and martyrdom. Most people will not be martyrs, but, if they live long enough, many will be dependent. For them, letting go and allowing others to take the lead and offer them care poses the last set of life-challenges before dying itself.
We remember people for how they handle their endings. My Grandfather Caccese, when he had lost his fight with cancer, bade farewell to the victory garden he had cultivated behind our family home as he finished watering it for the last time. “Goodbye,” he was overheard to say; “goodbye, garden. I will not see you again.” A few weeks later he died. In the interim, as in the years of battling cancer, my grandmother and mother were his support.
My Grandfather Christiansen lived with our family from his early 70’s until he was 88. Always independent, when he realized his health was deteriorating, he signed himself into a hospital and then, before the family could consult with doctors, into a nursing home. He knew the time had arrived when he would need extensive care. Not wanting to burden my parents, he made his end-of-life decisions with memorable dispatch.
While fear of dependence in old age is especially strong among Americans, our prejudice against dependence is overstated. Healthful longevity, Social Security, Medicare, Meals-on-Wheels and new living situations make independent living possible into late old age. Nonetheless, in the United States family members provide 90 percent of care to the infirm elderly. When the end of life approaches, interdependence is the lived reality.
Families as well as elders may have trouble letting go. Adult children, who are themselves seniors with their own health problems, are often stretched to the breaking point to care for infirm relatives. Reluctant to let go of the responsibility of direct care for their parents, some refuse to acknowledge when they can do no more. Accepting their limits and handing on their duties to others seem to them like filial betrayal. Letting go is something they, too, must learn to do.
Holding on to the end can be inappropriate for both elderly family members and their caregiving kin. Eleazar is a model, but so is Peter. Individualistic Americans do not need their independent streak reinforced. Family patriarchs do not need to be encouraged to hold on to the car keys, Lear-like, in conflict with their caregivers. Aged political leaders need no warrant to hang on, like Spain’s Generalissimo Franco, “for the good of the state” until no hint of life remains or, like Strom Thurmond, until their useful political life has long passed.
Interdependence in late-life families provides a primary occasion for parents and adult children to grow in holiness, the elderly by accepting the service of others and adults by providing companionship and service. For both generations, elder care presents an opportunity to grow in profound ways and to discover in themselves and their loved ones resources they have not experienced before. In extreme situations, there may even be opportunity for heroic sanctity. Even then the two generations need to be prepared to turn to others for support and assistance, as inevitably they will also need to turn over their lives and their loves to God.
Extreme infirmity offers another moral: that it is fitting for both elder and family to let go. To avoid surrender as a natural life-cycle development is to forego a religious and moral challenge of great significance; it deprives old age of one of its spiritual, and essentially Christian strengths. “Into your hands...” is a prayer we offer to God, the source of life. It is also a trust we give to those around us.