Our cruel world is showing too little respect for the old

Our cruel world is showing too little respect for the old

Never in my youth did I imagine myself as an old man. But here I am, after that steady turtle walk to old age that we call life. And I am happy to be here. It is important that, when you reach the top of the hill of life, you pay attention to the others who are standing there with you. I visited a great friend of mine in Jeddah the other day. He is just a little older than myself but the frailty of old age has been tougher with him, to the point where he has become increasingly forgetful and repeats himself. This is commonly known as a stage of Alzheimer’s. It was sad to see how this giant of a human being has been reduced in old age, aware that he was becoming a nuisance to himself and to others. As the famous saying goes: “All my life I’ve been taught how to die, but no one ever taught me how to grow old.” The old are, effectively, in a second childhood.

Indeed, we often forget that, as newborns, we resemble the old. You have to be constantly taken care of, fed and ushered around by loved ones. These are moments of happiness and joy though, with everyone waiting for your first smile, your first steps, ready to capture those memories on camera. All of these moments have meaning; they are filled with hope and joy. When we get older and see ourselves returning to the behavior of a baby — stumbling around unsteadily, talking without being understood — it is a more difficult moment for everyone to deal with. This is when we become a nuisance to our family, friends and loved ones, through no fault of our own, but imposing a burden that no longer holds the hope and joy of a baby. I am sad to see this happening to my great friend, who, like all others, had no choice or control over the ageing process.

We must remember what our parents have done for us, and return that love and care many times over

Hassan bin Youssef Yassin

I bring this story up because I remember a time when our culture greatly respected old age, where any family member or acquaintance would do whatever they could to assist the elderly with unbounded care, patience and love. Most elderly people have children they brought up and invested much care and effort in over many years. Yet the trend we see is that many children are no longer as ready to dedicate themselves to their ageing parents as their parents once dedicated themselves wholly to them. We are all becoming less patient, less compassionate and less caring for those who need our love and assistance in old age.

Today we send the elderly to care homes, where someone else will deal with them, prolonging their lives but often vastly decreasing its quality, as they are surrounded by the routines of infirm strangers rather than their loved ones. I have seen how a friend who was entirely capable of taking care of himself and his family was isolated into submissiveness — the opposite of the contract of love he thought he had with his family.

The other aspect of old age is medical care, which has become increasingly costly. It is said that the last two years of people’s lives are costlier in medical bills than all the other years of life combined. Often this means that life savings are depleted at this stage, erasing what could have been a security blanket for children and the remaining family. The security of the family organization is thereby reduced, making old age an even greater burden for a family to bear. The longer the old live, the less security the children have. It is an increasingly cruel world we live in.

A great friend of mine — a noble prince, a giant of a man — was so caring and loving in witnessing his own deterioration in old age that I cannot but hope to emulate him myself. But seeing so many old people abandoned in all but words by their families, by the children they brought up themselves, is a difficult thing to understand and to come to terms with. We must remember what our parents have done for us, and return that love and care many times over. Life is about caring for ourselves and for others, but particularly those who cared for us. We must all be kinder to old people.

• Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.

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