We grow wiser by giving ourselves to the elderly

We grow wiser by giving ourselves to the elderly


Pope Francis couldn’t have said it better.

During Monday’s Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, he told the crowd not to toss out older family members like “discarded material.”

He said “the solitude of the elderly” is “a tragedy of our times,” lamenting that “the life of children and grandchildren is not given as a gift to the elderly,” per the Holy See Press Office.

The pope added, “We grow if we give ourselves to others.”

The truth is that visiting an elderly family member benefits the younger visitor far more than it benefits the older person who is visited.

I’m blessed to still have my mother and father, both in their 80s. The best moments now are quiet ones on the back porch, as they recall life in America’s past.

I love asking my father about his military service. Drafted during the Korean War, he served two years – and had experiences thwarting racism, which he shared with me.

My dad grew up in Carrick, Pa., just south of downtown Pittsburgh. When he was drafted, Pittsburgh, like much of the country, was segregated.

The Army, though, had ended segregation a few years prior, in response to an executive order by President Truman.

Out of my father’s company of 200 soldiers, about 10% were Black. Among fellow soldiers he befriended, three happened to be Black.

One of those Black friends, who would become a mathematics professor, was being harassed by a group of fellows. The ringleader, a white fellow from Georgia, named Hodges, called him racial epithets.

My dad, who stood just under 6-foot-2, angrily confronted the harassers. Every one of them backed down – and never bothered his friend again.

But the story gets better.

See, Hodges’ father was a connected politician in Georgia, who arranged for Hodges to become squad leader. In that position, Hodges tormented a Black member of his squad, also my father’s friend, by assigning him the worst duties.

Until Hodges got busted for theft.

Stolen items were found in his locker. The captain told Hodges’ squad they could vote for their new squad leader. They elected the Black fellow Hodges had been tormenting. As the new squad leader, he assigned Hodges the dirtiest, most awful job there was – cleaning the kitchen’s grease pit.

That sweet little piece of justice happened in 1953 – 11 years before the Civil Rights Act would become law.

It happened in a very different America, in a military whose integration policies were just beginning to expose thousands of people of many different backgrounds to each other – and break down barriers.

Hearing my father’s story reminded me that while the young are quick to dismiss prior generations for their imperfections – “OK, boomer!” – they do so at their own loss.

Older folks have a treasure trove of wisdom to offer. They offer us a front row seat to their experiences with our shared history. You may be surprised by the deepness of their understanding and the actions they took to leave the world a better place than the found it.

But to benefit from their knowledge, you have to spend some time sitting with them on their back porch.

Do that, and they’ll treasure the time you give them more than you can know.

But as much as visiting benefits them, you’ll benefit even more – and grow more than you may imagine – from the hard-won wisdom they have to share.

Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood,” a humorous memoir available at amazon.com, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. 


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