A Place at the Table: Social justice in an ageing society

Social Justice Statement 2016–2017 Summary

The number of Australians aged 65 and over will more than double by the middle of the century. This has been rightly described as ‘the great success story of human development’. Increasing numbers of older people have an excellent chance of enjoying good health and an active life for many years.

The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2016–17 is titled ‘A Place at the Table: Social justice in an ageing society’. It celebrates the value, dignity and significant contributions of older people to the life of the community. In solidarity with all generations, older people have a rightful place in the heart of community life. The Bishops confront the utilitarianism in our society that values people only for what they produce and contribute economically and that, at worst, can regard older people as burdensome or dispensable.

In a society in which older people are being asked to work beyond the traditional retirement age, the bishops call for the benefits of work to be shared equitably. We must be especially aware of the needs of those who enter retirement in poverty or are particularly vulnerable to economic hardship, social isolation or exploitation.

The Bishops consider the circumstances of those who are approaching the end of their lives and warn of the loneliness, ageism and abuse that older people can experience. In particular, the Bishops warn about implications of the current community debate on euthanasia.

The Bishops call for communities of mercy and love – where people reach out and minister to vulnerable older people, where bonds between generations are built up, and where no one is cast as being a burden or as rivals to younger generations.

Chairman’s message

On behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, I present the 2016–2017 Social Justice Statement, A Place at the Table: Social justice in an ageing society.

The journey into old age presents both challenges and opportunities for us all. Retirement, changing health and altered living conditions can be confronting for individuals and their families. Our society, too, needs to adjust as it deals with a community with an increasingly higher proportion of older people and comparatively fewer people of working age. However, these changes bring gifts too, and this is the time for families, communities and society as a whole to explore them. In the words of Pope Francis, old age is a vocation, not a time to ‘pull in the oars’, but ‘our societies are not ready, spiritually and morally, to appreciate the true value of this stage of life’.

We are seeing a new vision of ageing, one where many people enter their 60s and 70s in good health and with plenty of skills and energy to offer our communities. Indeed, governments have seen this change and have started calling for people to remain in the workplace beyond the traditional retirement age. For many, that is a realistic expectation; but for it to be realised, governments and employers must recognise the true capacities of older people. They must also acknowledge that not all older people are healthy or well-off.

Old age and frailty will come to us all eventually, and we will need the help and support of others. This is a time when we must see a just society in action. We must challenge the individualism and consumerism of modern society that gives rise to what Pope Francis calls a ‘throw-away’ culture. Stereotypes of older people as doddering, out of touch or dependent are false and dehumanising. People are not commodities, to be valued only for their productivity or purchasing power. They are human beings in the fullest sense, precious in their own right, possessing a dignity that was given them by God. Furthermore, their wisdom and lived experience are priceless treasures that can enrich our lives.

At this time in Australia, we face a threefold challenge: to work for an inclusive society that brings older people into the heart of the community; to ensure the dignity and care of people who are frail and most vulnerable to neglect or abuse; and to foster solidarity among all generations, recognising the special affinity that exists between young and old.

We must never forget that the older person before us is a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a friend, and most importantly, a son or daughter of God. All of us are created in the image and likeness of God, and are called to have our rightful place at the table He has prepared.

With every blessing,

Vincent Long Van Nguyen DD OFMConv
Bishop of Parramatta
Chairman, Australian Catholic Social Justice Council