VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Thursday that when it comes to caring for the elderly, palliative care is necessary because it counters a mentality of utility that often leaves elderly persons marginalized and alone.
“Abandonment is the most serious ‘illness’ of the elderly and also the greatest injustice they can suffer: Those who helped us to grow must not be abandoned when they need our help, our love and our tenderness,” the Pope said March 5.
With its emphasis on alleviating the suffering of the sick and accompanying them with tenderness for the duration of their illness, palliative care serves as a crucial support for the elderly, “who, for reasons of age, often receive less attention from curative medicine and are often abandoned.”
The Pope’s words came in an audience with members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who are gathered in Rome March 5-6 for their annual assembly, which this year reflected on the theme: “Assisting the Elderly and Palliative Care.”
What palliative care offers as a unique and essential element in the medical field is the recognition of “the value of the person,” Francis said.
He noted that many elderly are either “left to die or made to die” due to their physical or social condition and stressed that all types of medicine have the societal responsibility to bear witness to the honor due not only to elderly persons but to each and every human being.
All medical knowledge, Francis said, “is truly science, in its most noble sense, only if it finds its place as a help in view of the good of man, a good that is never achieved by going ‘against’ his life and dignity.”
The Pope also emphasized that the criteria governing the actions of doctors must not be limited to medical evidence and efficiency, nor to the rules of heath-care systems and economic profit.
“A state cannot think of making a profit with medicine. On the contrary, there is no more important duty for a society than safeguarding the human person.”
Palliative care then, bears witness to the fact that the human person always has value, even when suffering from age and illness, the Pope continued.
The human person, he said, “is a good in and of himself and for others and is loved by God. For this reason, when life becomes very fragile and the end of earthly existence approaches, we feel the responsibility to assist and accompany the person in the best way.”
Francis then praised the efforts made on the part of those who work in the field of palliative care and encouraged both professionals and students to specialize in the topic.
Although this type of care is not geared toward saving lives, it centers on the equally important recognition of the value of the human person, he said, and encouraged those working in the field to carry out their tasks with an attitude of service.
“It is this capacity for service to the life and dignity of the sick, even when they are old, that is the measure of the true progress of medicine and of all society,” the Pope observed, and he repeated an appeal made by St. John Paul II: “Respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life.”
However, while palliative care is necessary, it does not remove the need for the family in caring for the elderly, Francis added.
“The elderly, first of all, need the care of family members — whose affection cannot be replaced by the most efficient structures or the most competent and charitable health-care workers,” he said.
When family members are not able to offer the needed care or if the illness of their elderly loved one is advanced or terminal, then the “truly human” assistance offered by palliative care is a good option, so long as it “supplements and supports” the care already provided by family members, he said.
Pope Francis closed his speech by encouraging those present to continue advancing in their studies and research, so that “the work of the promotion and defense of life might be ever more efficacious and fruitful.”