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Remembering the most vulnerable—the elderly

Mark Milke: This Christmas and New Year’s season, consider that “respect your elders” is considered basic and essential wisdom in most of the world – for a good reason.

It’s a cliché at year-end to reflect on one’s life, the wider world and think about New Year’s resolutions. But that annual December reflex exists for a reason: Most people want a better life for those they love, themselves, and even strangers. Resolving to think and act differently in the year ahead is one way to do that and it comes from a good impulse.

To that end, every December in my personal journal, I annually write up themes to pursue next year along with career and personal goals, and review regularly over the next 365 days. Seeing themes and goals in print helps reminds me of what I really want out of a year. With big personal or career projects, it also helps me stay on track, though I do confess some goals—"write up book ‘X’ this year—sometimes migrate from one year to the next.

Reflecting on where Canada is at is also a helpful exercise and hear let’s take a big picture, big-hearted view and ask this question: What kind of country do we want in the years and decades ahead? Here, it helps to ponder cultural trends.

A story from Japan—about Canada

Here’s one example of a 2022 goal worth pursuing: A return to respect-your-elders ethos (including how we treat those who are older and in difficulty) which seems to be slipping away, although this is more a hunch than an empirical proof at present.

This issue came to mind again after the City of Penticton expropriated and sold a senior’s home for $270,000 less than its market value, to pay an outstanding $10,000 property tax bill. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke noted the 60-year-old was bereaved, and recommended changes to how cities expropriate homes including using plain language for tax-sale notices.

One must pay property taxes, but City of Penticton, which apologized to the woman and agreed to pay $140,000 in compensation, is a recent example of acting according to the letter of the law while ignoring the common-sense spirit of such actions. That includes failing to find alternatives, some of which have now been noted by Chalke.

This treatment of those a bit older or the elderly and vulnerable has concerned me for years.

In the mid-1990s, I was teaching English in Japan, subscribed to an English-language newspaper that reported on developments in Japan and occasionally elsewhere in the world

Canada was rarely in the news. But the newspaper had a columnist who originally hailed from Canada who married a Japanese fellow, and had become a Japanese citizen. Her columns were an informative bridge between the two countries.

I recall one unsettling column: It involved an elderly woman in the Vancouver area who had backed out of her driveway, running over a pedestrian. Thankfully, the pedestrian lived though I don’t recall the extent of the injuries. I do recall the Canadian-Japanese columnist’s horror at what happened next: the injured pedestrian sued the elderly grandmother for almost all she was worth, though I don’t remember if the end result was ever followed up on in the Japanese newspaper.

The columnist pointed this out in the context of appreciating Japan’s more communal, less individualist society. I don’t know if one can sue others in Japan for such personal injuries, but as the columnist wrote, it wouldn’t matter: No one in Japan would ever sue an elderly person for an accident. It would be seen as the height of selfishness and opportunism. (I vaguely recall that the elderly lady in question was going to lose her home if the case was successful, so personal liability insurance must not have been enough.)

Being an individual doesn’t mean every rights avenue must be pursued

 I favour the Western practice of placing the individual at the forefront of law and policy, of a rights-based approach where when you approach the judicial bench, or file your taxes, you are treated no differently than anyone else based on the colour of your skin and other irrelevant characteristics. To be sure, there are exceptions to that practice. But they run against the Martin Luther King Jr. vision of a society focused on character and nothing else, which is why such exceptions should end as soon as is practicable.

I digress for a reason: A commitment to individual rights in law and policy is positive; collectivism in such matters has a sorry record in history including in Japan, where groupthink and practice help explain the too-easy tilt into authoritarianism and disastrous militarism in the 1930s in the 1940s

Still, a legal and policy commitment to the individual does not mean we should only think and act as an individual. Or expressed succinctly, just because I have the legal right to do something doesn’t mean it is morally the right thing to do. Life is not just about rights; it is also about responsibilities, in this case, to the elderly.

Just because one could sue a grandmother for an accident, doesn’t mean one should. Also, the positive aspects of Japan’s communal ethos would have meant that some other remedy would have been sought for the injured party to help the pedestrian and shield the elderly driver from a lawsuit that could throw her into poverty. All that would do is create two victims as opposed to just one.

Back to the notion of respecting one’s elders and its decline. I suspect in the Western world the reason for the decline is two-fold: first, the worship of youth that began in the 1960s with the baby boomers and rebellion against accepted norms. The decline of faith traditions for many might be another. For many people in Western societies, this notion was inculcated through faiths such as Judaism and Christianity, and was and is implicit in the Fifth Commandment, “Honour your father and mother.”

How to change this: Pursuing wisdom and empathy

One doesn’t have to be Pollyannish or blind in all this. Age does not automatically confer wisdom or “rightness” and blind obedience is always a mistake. Also, I don’t have any easy remedies here on how to restore this ethos of respect. However, I suspect the remedy is to be found in two approaches.

First, by recalling that most faith and philosophical traditions the world over beyond traditional Western religions also assume “respect for elders” as part of their traditions, grounded in the assumptions of wisdom: At 15-years-old we all think we know it all; as one grows up, a mark of maturity is grasping how little we actually know, thus the need to listen more to those with life experience and learn from history.

A second approach is to remember how vulnerable are the very elderly: Think of an 80 or 90-year-old who may be your parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent, or just your elderly neighbour and their frailties. Here I recall how a roommate and I shovelled the snow-strewn walks of a senior who lived beside us in university; we always worried she might fall.

Think of how many people of such an advanced age move carefully, the body refusing to forgive much in the way of physical mistakes, or the eyes of a lonely senior longing for company. That image should engender renewed empathy and respect in all of us.

More respect for the elderly in 2022 as a worthy New Year’s goal? Imperfect as we all are in carrying out our resolutions, that one might help us all—and especially the elderly—in our sharper interpersonal and sometimes highly impersonal era.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.