By Emmanuel Arockiam, SJ

Nearly 50 years ago, my novice master, who was a natural storyteller, would often act out some jokes during the conferences. It was funny as he would try mimicry and dramatize, modulating his voice. Probably, this was his technique to keep us awake during the sultry afternoons.

One of the jokes was about two retired Jesuits, both in their 80s, who were having an animated conversation in the evening after tea. He said that one of the two Jesuits was partially deaf while the other was stone deaf. One of them asked the other: “Are you going for a walk?”

“No, I am going for a walk,” was the reply from the other Jesuit.

“Oh, I thought you were going for a walk.”

“No, no… I am going for a walk.”

As novices were wont to laugh for even a silly joke, we all laughed heartily. For a few weeks, whenever someone asked a question such as, “Are you going to the chapel?” we responded without a smile, “No, no, I am going to the chapel.”

At that stage, when we were not even 20 years old, we could not realize that the joke could reflect real life. We were too young to understand the reality of old people, even though there were quite a few old Jesuits in another building in the same campus. We were ignorant of all they had been doing before they came to the so-called Home for the Aged, which was cynically called ‘Gate of Heaven’. Even though they had been stalwarts in some field of study or had achieved great things in their ministries, all that we knew about them was that they were old Jesuits. We did not grasp fully what they were going through physically and psychologically. All that we understood was that they were a spent force, and that they had nothing else to do but to rest and pray.

We had no idea about what it was to lose something that was so important and yet usually taken for granted – such as the ability to hear. We laughed at some older person who did not laugh for a joke because he could not hear the punch line. We made fun of the one who asked for the dish that was in front of him because of poor eyesight. We thought it was hilarious when somebody repeated the same question because his  long-term memory was poor. We had no knowledge about Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia or senility which creep in as people get old.

We did not consider the old people as a burden, simply because we were not in charge of them. But we, certainly, took them for granted. Don’t we do the same even now? We expected them to be always cheerful. If someone was grumpy, we frowned, and we talked about it during recreation. If someone was sick and taken to the hospital, we were curious to know what was wrong, and prayed for them during common prayer, and waited for further news. That was all.

It dawned on me a few years later that we all needed special hearts filled with empathy to understand the elderly, their suffering and their needs. While I was doing my doctoral studies in Counselling Psychology, I used to visit two old-age homes to celebrate Mass and to counsel those who were psychologically troubled. I was sad to see the gradual deterioration of the physical health and mental capacity of many residents.

Even though they had been stalwarts in some field of study or had achieved great things in their ministries, all that we knew about them was that they were old Jesuits.

Later, in a Jesuit Infirmary, I happened to meet a few people who had earlier made their mark as principals and rectors but who did not remember now where they had worked earlier or where their rooms were. In all these places, I have seen people looking straight but seeing nothing, their minds totally blank, devoid of words though they had been loquacious earlier. If I asked them what they were thinking, they would say, “Nothing.”

Many people were used to my visits on Sundays. If I passed by their beds without spending some time with them, they would invariably call me or they would complain to me later and ask me for reasons why I did not meet them. Actually, they would be waiting to ask someone for some simple help such as, “Can you draw the curtain?” “Has my sister come to see me?” “What day is it?” “Are you working here?” “Can you help me sit up for some time as my back is hurting?” “I don’t know what is wrong with my cell phone. Can you check?” They would be all eyes and ears to not miss any chance of meeting me or someone else, because they would believe that if they let that chance go, they would be helpless. They needed others’ help to be functional. They needed to interact with someone. They would be impatient and frustrated if their expectations were not fulfilled at once. Since I visited them just once a week or so, I was not so annoyed as the paid helpers, who had to be with them all the time.

I rather felt satisfied that I could spend some time to listen to them, to brighten them up with my concern for them without expecting anything from them. However, I came away with a certain amount of inexplicable sadness that I could not do a lot to reduce their suffering. My inability caused a great deal of pain that was cathartic, therapeutic, and making me a better person in understanding the reality of older people and life itself.

In one treatment center for the aged, I met three or four people who were always happy. They would take the initiative to inquire about my health. Their true concern for my welfare would often melt me. Their genuine interest in my work boosted my morale and motivated me to do more. They would voluntarily come and ask me if I needed their assistance. As it was a joy to see them, I would not come away from those homes without meeting them.

I have often wondered what keeps them happy. Aren’t they upset to be old and not young and active anymore? Are they totally devoid of the physical problems that are inevitable in their age? How do they deal with the existential angst? Have they removed the sting from death that seemed to lurk in the corner? Is their faith in God and eternal reward sustaining them and keeping them joyful?

Recently, I asked an older Jesuit if he really believed in heaven and hell. As a typical Jesuit, he answered by asking another question: “Without eternal life, wouldn’t this life on earth be meaningless?” To my query, “How do you understand after-life?” he said, “I don’t know how it will be. But I know that I will be with a loving God; it would be a state, and not a place.” When I told him that that belief would motivate him to have hope, he agreed and added, “Yes, I cannot describe it; I cannot convince other people who depend on certainty or concrete proof. However, this is my belief and the sacraments help me.”

‘Growing old gracefully’ cannot start after we cross 60 years. Those who grumble as novices or juniors would grumble more when they are old.

While I admire such joyful old Jesuits, I ask myself often, “Would I be like these happy old people or would I be a grumpy old man, a disgruntled Jesuit, a miserably depressed or angry person? Despite my study of psychology and counselling practice, would I still be filled with anxiety and worry about my health and future as many old people are? Would I have such faith as not to be in despair?” Would the Christian hope in ‘the best is yet to come’ keep my face radiant and my personality lovable?

Our musings and questions about old age in the Society of Jesus should go along with a deep faith in God. Otherwise, with all our reasoning capacity, scientific rigor, and advancement in science and technology, our hold on values would teeter, our childhood idea of a future beyond death would be relegated as obsolete, our images of heaven and hell would fall under the category of mythology, and the last phase of life would become an unbearable drudgery.

‘Growing old gracefully’ cannot start after we cross 60 years. Those who grumble as novices or juniors would grumble more when they are old. From the novitiate, if not earlier, we must develop an attitude of gratitude even for small little gifts from God, routine activities, and daily achievements in life. Early in our life, we must start an emotional bank account for storing as memories the attention, affection and appreciation we get daily. If we achieve emotional maturity and don’t lose it as we grow old, we will be able to feel satisfied about life, and maintain a loving attitude to self and others. We will live in God’s presence, even if we have to wait like Simeon and Anna.

If we pass every stage of life with gratitude and satisfaction, we will not feel useless, lonely and miserable even when we are old. A joyous life in old age is the fruit of who we are from the beginning. Life is a race; old age takes us near the final touch line. Every step we take must lead to the final stage of integrity. Joy and satisfaction are rewards we can enjoy throughout life. Every joyfully old Jesuit will inspire everyone better in his old age than in all the years of his active ministry. The joy and gratitude with which he lives the last stage of his life will preach more eloquently than all the sermons he would have preached in his active years.

Emmanuel Arockiam, SJ is the head of the Department of Counselling Psychology, St. Joseph’s College, Trichy, Tamil Nadu, India. He did his Ph.D. in Counselling Psychology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. He is the Director of JESCCO (Jesuit Centre for Counselling), Trichy, Tamil Nadu, India.