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A note to young people: Our elders need you!

By Sr Constance Veit, l.s.p.

Since the beginning of the pandemic I’ve been praying the rosary with our Residents everyday. Lately I’ve been aware of how much I’ve grown to appreciate one of the joyful mysteries — I sometimes find myself lingering in the Temple with Mary and Joseph as they present their infant Son to the Lord.

In his homily for this year’s feast of the Presentation on February 2nd, Pope Francis proposed three questions that help us reflect on this scene and our own lives. Referring to Simeon, who was “moved by the Spirit,” he first asked “What moves us? … Is it the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of this world? … What moves our days? What is the love that makes us keep going?”

Referring to Simeon’s proclamation, “My eyes have seen your salvation,” the Pope then asked “What do your eyes see?” A “naïve gaze,” he said, flees reality and refuses to see problems. But a “sapiential gaze” looks within and sees beyond. It does not stop at appearances, but “can enter into the very cracks of our weaknesses and failures, in order to discern God’s presence even there.”

Finally, reflecting on how Simeon took Jesus into his arms, the Pope asked, “What do we take into our own arms?”

At a moment when our mission near the elderly has been challenged in ways I never could have imagined as a result of the pandemic and the burgeoning crisis in long-term care staffing, reflecting on these three questions has affirmed my vocation. They have also inspired me to make an appeal to young people.

The first question, “what moves you?”, takes me back to the dawn of my vocation. As a nominally Catholic teenager I started volunteering at a home of the Little Sisters of the Poor — and unexpectedly found my purpose in life, my vocation. From my very first encounters with the infirm elderly my heart was profoundly moved.

As I strove to make the elderly happy, God was awakening in my heart something that I hadn’t even known was there. Many years later I realized that my joy in serving others sprung from what Pope Saint John Paul II termed “the law of the gift” — the experience of finding myself through the sincere gift of myself.

Why did the elderly move me so deeply? To paraphrase Pope Francis, what did I see in them? In the needy, frail seniors with whom I began to spend more and more time I first saw a group of people who needed a great deal of assistance in meeting their basic human needs — but there was more.

In the elderly I saw the universal human need for love and esteem stripped of all pretense. I saw vulnerability in weakness and honest emotions. I saw that many of the Residents possessed that sapiential gaze of which Pope Francis spoke, and I appreciated the wisdom they so freely shared. Somehow these people from my grandparents’ generation were more open and authentic than people my parents’ age — they were really cool!

During my college years I gained experience in a variety of healthcare environments, but I always came back to the elderly. At the same time, I saw that many of my peers felt drawn to work in pediatrics. Realizing this difference further confirmed my calling. It was God who had planted this love for the elderly deep in my heart — my vocation was real!

All that was left was to follow my heart and take the elderly into my own arms, as our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan had done. This commitment is achieved through the vow of hospitality, by which we Little Sisters devote our lives uniquely to the service of the elderly poor. Forty years later, the elderly still move me everyday; my love for them is what keeps me going.

If you are a young person looking to make a difference in the world, I urge you to spend time with the elderly. Let them help you discover the seed of self-giving love planted deep in your heart. Society is rapidly aging and the needs of seniors have never been greater. Older people need youth to reach out and take up their cause, and the young need the sapiential gaze of their elders.

In various spots around the country young people are launching intergenerational initiatives. Check out tandem-app.org, bridgethegenerations.com, paletteprogram.org or oldpeopleare.cool to see some of the great projects already underway — or create your own!

If you are a young woman and this reflection has moved you, ask yourself if perhaps there is a place in your heart for the elderly. And then please contact me — I’d love to share with you the joy of our vocation at the service of the elderly!

Sr Constance Veit is the communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States and an occupational therapist.