I am typing this piece in the gazebo situated in the middle of the very large garden of my second home. A gentle breeze mitigates the heat. The chirping of the birds mixes with the sound of the water falling into the swimming pool and the cries of the swans gently gliding in their our pond.

It is very relaxing.

Not everything, though, is so idyllic in my second home. It has become so not because I bought it, but because three years ago my father became one of its residents. His condition necessitated this hard and heart breaking move. My second home is Casa Antonia, a residential nursing home for the elderly which almost touches San Anton Gardens. I spend between three and four hours daily at Casa Antonia. That is why I call it my second home! This is my first direct experience with old age, nicely called the Third Age.

Do not romanticise old age

Some people tend to romanticise old age. I definitively do not!

I discovered that old age is indeed a complex reality! Some old people are still healthy enough to keep on going about their own business, even driving their own cars. Others are bed ridden. Their universe has shrunk to a motorised bed. Others live in a world of their own due to their dementia. Some, less fortunate, live a life of almost continuous physical pain. Like all of us, the old need a lot of care and love, but because of their vulnerability, they need more than most of us do. Besides taking care of my father, together with another priest, I try to minister to the Third Agers. Mass is celebrated every day in the Casa and communion is distributed to those who are bed ridden. In these last three years, I celebrated the sacrament of the anointing of the sick more times than I had celebrated it during my previous 30 years as a priest.

The physical care is in the hands of the nurses and carers. Working with old people is not an easy task. One needs lots of patience, care and love besides professional training. Many times, theirs seem to be a thankless job, and it is generally a tiresome job. However, a most necessary job it surely is. I thank all of those (especially nurses and carers working in the Wing) whose dedication makes my father’s life more comfortable and dignified.

The invisibility of the old

The number of old people is on the increase. Most probably there is no family in Malta which does not have to deal with the problems that old age brings with it. There are more families affected by this than there are families affected by drug abuse or alcoholism. This notwithstanding, the drug and alcohol problems are present on the national agenda more than issues that have to do with old people. The number of homosexuals is definitively smaller than the number of old men and women. However, homosexuality is present on the media more than old age.

A number of factors explain this. I think that drugs and homosexuality can be dramatised and/or glamorised more than old age, consequently the media projects the former much more than it does the latter. The gay lobby, for example, is quite strong and vociferous. It is not too difficult for it to have its voice heard. On the other hand there is no lobby for and of the Third Agers.

The media manufacture our agendas and we generally discuss issues that have to do with drug abuse more than old age. There are other reasons as well. Old age is the harbinger of death. No one of us would like to admit publicly that he or she is going to die. Therefore, we try to emarginate old age and its concomitant problems from the centre stage of the media. There is also the perception that old people are generally well off. Ask any fundraiser how difficult it is to raise money, for example, for old people’s homes.

For all these reasons, and others perhaps, the old are to a certain extent invisible though very well visible in face-to-face contacts.

Homes and homes away from home

All efforts should be done to keep old people in their homes. Nevertheless, try as one can, the reality that some would need to be admitted to a home exists and will be more acute tomorrow than it is today. The number of places in old people’s homes increased in recent years but it is still not enough. Over 700 people are on the waiting lists of St Vincent de Paule alone!

The private sector has entered this field which was previously reserved for state and church. This intervention provided more places and more rooms … quite naturally at a price. Government had introduced a measure of help in the form of tax credits. Another positive initiative was the introduction of a number of private-public partnerships. Government owned homes are run by private enterprise or government subsidises a number of places in some private homes. These are very good initiatives but surely more has to be done to cope with the problem.

Strangely enough, homes run by Church institutions have been left out of the equation. At one time the religious ran these homes and expenses were contained. To-day the number of laypersons in such homes outnumbers the number of the religious. Expenses are on the increase and homes run by the Church have financial problems which, most probably, the Church on its own cannot solve. On the other hand, it should be unthinkable for the Church – though some are saying the contrary – to close its homes for the old. I think it would make a lot of sense to consider state-church partnerships in this sector as well.

I strongly believe that the problem will only be reasonable tackled if civil society becomes involved much more to provide services for old people in their own homes or in state, church or privately run homes. There are all sorts of groups and associations taking care of all sectors of society but not enough is done for old people by civil society. This is a pity. Will it ever be remedied?

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