The experience of ageism

Penny MulveyBy Penny Mulvey

“It is a terrible thing for a society to discard the weak and the disabled and to justify it by saying they have had their turn.”

This is the claim made by Dr Karen Hitchcock, a Melbourne physician and writer, in the March Quarterly Essay, Dear Life, on caring for the elderly.

Dr Hitchcock’s paper is compelling, compassionate and passionate. She is a doctor who sees beyond the surface of the presenting health issues to the person beneath. She is appalled by the ageism within Australian society which implicitly states that old people are a burden on our economy.

The Synod has long recognised that the elderly can be marginalised by society, as is evidenced through the work of Uniting AgeWell (UA). The new Executive Director of UA, Valerie Lyons, suggests the term ‘aged care’ reinforces the kind of mentality to which Dr Hitchcock is referring.

Dr Hitchcock’s essay is a very loud canary in the coal mine and in reading it, I realised how deeply some of the mantra she cited is entrenched within my brain. Medicine is keeping elderly patients alive against their will. Put me out of my misery if ever I get dementia. Growing old is to be feared.

“This is not the case!”, Dr Hitchcock’s words yell out from each page. However, the result of the deeply held ageism in our society, is that many of the elderly have also adopted it, expressing concern about being a bother and a burden, electing for no treatment when they still have worthy lives to live.

The Uniting Church believes that all people are created in the image of God. The 2006 Assembly affirmed the value of each individual life in the comprehensive statement, Dignity in Humanity: a Uniting Church statement on human rights.

Paragraph two reads: “…the Uniting Church believes that every person is precious and entitled to live with dignity because they are God’s children, and that each person’s life and rights need to be protected or the human community (and its reflection of God) and all people are diminished.”

Later in the document, the Church supports the commitment of the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches to promote and defend human rights which takes into account: “… the equal rights of young and old, of women and men, and of all persons irrespective of their origin or condition.”

Dr Hitchcock strongly asserts that elderly people should be offered equal rights irrespective of their origin or condition because she too believes we are all diminished.

“The elderly, the frail are our society: they gave birth to us, nourished us, protected us, paid their taxes diligently, went to war, ate bread with sugar when there was no butter…They are our parents and grandparents, our carers and neighbours and they are every one of us in the not-to-distant future.”

We are a Church which is ageing. Do not be afraid to advocate for each other as every person is precious.

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