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By Mgr. Charles Vella - Founder of Cana Movement
Living at Dar tal-Kleru (Clergy Home) after 40 years in Milan has made me deeply conscious of my advanced age. Fifty priests, some bedridden, are being taken care of by the ‘Cenacle Sisters’, at the home which was founded in 1964 by the late saintly Mons. Salvatore Grima and his brother Anġlu Grima, both hailing from Żejtun.
As time goes by, the average age of the Maltese and Gozitan clergy will increase and regrettably many end up alone without having someone to look after them. Unfortunately manpower in the Church is already short. This is all symptomatic of the situation of the elderly population in Malta. While the birth rate is too low, the ageing population is on the increase. Some elderly people suffer loneliness, as they have no one to care for them or else they cannot afford to pay for a carer. Only when you arrive at this stage in your life, which some call the ‘Second spring in life’, do you become aware that ageing is difficult to live with it.
After a life full of pastoral and social commitments, I am now with my fellow priests aware that ageing, even for us clergy, is indeed a challenge. After 62 years of dedication to others, especially families and the sick at San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, now is the time to care physically and spiritually for myself. I thank God I have my family together with the nuns and carers of Dar tal-Kleru to look after me with dedication as a vocation. However, I still ask myself who is taking care of our older population? Who will in the future take care of the old? The younger generations, if they can afford it, ‘park’ their parents in a private home often against the will of their parents as they are too busy at home and at work. Some answer that the State has a duty to look after the aged.
Quite rightfully, and the State does this with the grant of pensions, social welfare services and medical care. Admittedly, this is a burden on the State, so much so that often, when austerity measures are introduced, the victims are indeed the aged. As life expectancy is undoubtedly increasing these financial costs will in the future increase. More can be done to assist the old, many of whom are in their nineties, to enjoy the right of a decent living without having to end at St. Vincent de Paul Residence or at a private retirement home.
The Church in Malta is doing its share as a witness of charity, love and humanity. The number of homes run by the Church is 13 and the majority, including Dar tal-Providenza, do not benefit from any government help. One wonders, were it not for the contributions by the faithful, how long can the Church continue to render this service. The Church homes are either free or charge a nominal rate when compared to what the elderly have to pay at private retirement homes.
In Malta we are witnessing an increase in the number of private retirement homes for the elderly as this has, alas, become a business concern. Clearly this can be a profitable business as some hotels have been converted into homes for the elderly. Regrettably, even within the private sector, where rates are often above €1,500 a month, the standard of care and service is not at its best.
Undoubtedly children who strive to keep their parents at home incur a considerable expense for the engagement of carers and nurses. The State often helps but the financial burden always becomes hard to cope with. As some governments are doing, like in Germany or France, the cost of family carers should be subsidised as it is more economical to keep the elderly at home than in a retirement home.
Back in the 1970s I attended a United Nations and Vatican conference at Castel Gandolfo on active ageing. The Pope exhorted us to train and educate the aged to be active. Nowadays, active aging is a popular trend but more can be done through the work of physiotherapists, facilitators and doctors. What has to be seriously considered by politicians is the integration of family policy with the policy for the elderly. This is the only way how to plan for the future.
Once we Maltese were insulted by an English minister who stated that we “breed like rabbits”. At the time, the Cana Movement had already started educating couple for family planning through natural methods. The birth rate went down and today we are below the European rate. Government must find ways and means to encourage young families to ‘be open to life with generosity’, likewise the Church in its teachings. France is an example: today it has the highest fertility rate, partly as a result of government policy. This is due not only to the Church, but also of the feminist left wing policy. Sylviane Agacinski said: “We have a position that is humanist, feminist and social, and therefore left wing.” Three former ministers have campaigned for more children. The birth rate in France has dropped below the symbolic level of one to two children. Malta is in a very similar position, while the population of the elderly is increasing. In the eight years as chairman of the Family Policy Commission of the Council of Europe, we were very much aware of the situation in Europe. Even China after for many years of allowing just the birth of one child, preferably male, is now changing its policy to increase its fertility. China has also adopted a welfare policy to encourage couples to have more than one child.
France is the first to make a radical change by introducing an active support family and elderly policy characterised by the payment of family benefits (housing benefits, family allowance, early childhood benefits), maternity and paternity leave, tax allowance, the card or vouchers for large families, child care and retirement benefits. All this encourages young couples and 85 percent of the women go out to work. If in Malta we seriously want to tackle the problem of the elderly it is imperative to integrate it to a practical family policy. The first step is through education before marriage on the contents of chapters four and five of Pope Francis’s Exhortation on the Family. Government, and likewise the Opposition has to face this responsibility through the introduction of some of the French benefits, some of which do exist in some ways. All this is a challenge for the State, the Church and NGOs.
On the whole the situation is not all that bleak, but the question remains: who will care for our elderly now and in the years to come?
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