file1191265980289It must be me. I’m like a trip wire, drawn taut between two trees: ageism on the one side and super-spirituality on the other. Barely noticeable until someone trips over me and triggers off deadly barbs. I’m particularly sensitive right now to the needs of the old-old, and I’ve always been very put off by those who would quote chapter and verse from the Bible yet not say a word on behalf of the needy and the defenceless. Did I get it wrong or were we called to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (italics mine)? Matthew 5 surely was not referring to “salt of the church” and “light of the parish”.

These past couple of weeks have seen a furore in the local media about the residents of two neighbourhoods being up in arms about the possibility of eldercare facilities being built near their homes.

Another group of Housing Board residents are objecting to plans to build elder-friendly facilities in their estate, following a similar case in Woodlands last week.

Residents of Toh Yi estate in Bukit Timah said HDB’s plans to build studio apartments for the elderly will ‘rob’ them of their common space and the estate’s main recreational facility.

A handful of the residents also likened the apartments to ‘death houses’ for the elderly to wait out their last days. (Janice Tai, “Facilities for elderly not welcome in Toh Yi estate either”, The Straits Times, February 9, 2012)

This really hits close to home, literally. Apart from the fact that we live on the periphery of Toh Yi estate, elder-friendly facilities are what we’ve been looking for in order to provide my recently widowed father with socialization outside of the home environment. In the process of finding suitable elder daycare facilities, I discovered that many of these places had long waiting lists. Hence the need to build more such centres. It riles me, nay saddens me, when people resort to ageism. When they treat the old like human beings who are past their use-by date.

The most critical barrier faced by older people in contemporary society is ageism. This barrier is both socially and psychologically the most destructive as it lowers their self-esteem and curtails their participation at all levels, i.e. family, community and societal. Ageism is pervasive in explicit ways such as negative behavioral and verbal expressions, and implicitly in policies that deny them opportunities and/or resources based on the criterion of age. (Helen Ko, Kalyani K. Mehta and Ko Soo Meng, Understanding & Counselling Older Persons. Singapore: SAGE Counselling Centre, 2006, 56)

It saddens me because we have become a society so entrenched in meritocracy that anything or anyone without an explicit or visible “merit” is deemed valueless. Pragmatism is the force field that shields us from failure. Alas, it has also kept out our hearts. We object to eldercare facilities because it may lower the value of our real estate. We see studio apartments that are meant for the young-old to enjoy a better quality of life as potential “death houses”. Perhaps it is our mortality that scares us. And all these facilities drive home the fact that we are indeed mortal.

Something that my beloved said in last Sunday’s sermon really struck me. Jesus was described in Isaiah 42:3a as someone who would not break a bruised reed, nor snuff out a smoldering wick. The bruised reed is no longer turgid and good for use as a measuring rule. Yet Jesus would not break it nor discard it. The smoldering wick can no longer shine, yet Jesus would not snuff it out. He came to teach us compassion. If we call ourselves followers of Jesus, should we not also grow to be more Christlike? Which means we see our neighbours through compassion-tinted lenses.

Just because someone is past his or her economically productive years, does not mean that he or she has nothing to contribute to society. Much of who I am was learnt at the feet of a grandfather who had the time to teach me the joys of seeking knowledge, of increasing my vocabulary through crossword puzzles, of keeping my car in tiptop condition through regular maintenance and careful warming up each morning. Even as a preschooler, I had learnt the effectiveness of potassium permanganate as an antiseptic for cuts and grazes.

Unlike societies of yore where wars or pestilence made it true that “Old age was the privilege of rocks and trees,” (Obituary for Wislawa Szymborska, The Economist, February 11th 2012) we now have societies where the proportion of old to young continues to grow at an alarming rate. But imagine if that society is graced by older people who have been activated to bless others in ways that only the wise and compassionate can?

As Christians we are zealous in our efforts to evangelise and lead others to salvation. And rightly so. As our very wise friend, LT, has often said, we sell heavenly life insurance so that people are assured of their destination after they die. But what if they don’t die immediately? What if they go on to live 30, 40, 50 years more? Are we as zealous in helping them to live out their lives? Can we truly claim that the Living Word, through the written Word, has transformed us to be salt and light in the world?

And so, in this continuing saga of finding more suitable locations for future eldercare facilities, are we Christians as guilty of an error of commission when we join the voices of those who indulge in ageism? Or are we guilty of an error of omission, when we stay silent and do not speak up on behalf of the poor and the marginalized? We can choose to be different, you know.