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'Seamless garment' extends to care for older Australians

  • 27 September 2017


The International Day of Older Persons, celebrated on 1 October, presents itself with a slightly apologetic demeanour. 'How old is older?' we might be tempted to ask. The wording certainly allows those of a certain age free to opt in or opt out. But the United Nations may have shown its hand in its promotion, telling us that by 2050 there will be fewer children than people over 60.

Whatever of its boundaries, the day is topical. Legislation to legalise euthanasia is soon to be introduced into the New South Wales and Victorian parliaments. Opponents and supporters have both focused on the predicaments of older people.

The conditions in many nursing homes where huge profits are said to be made out of the neglect of the elderly have also aroused public disquiet. Internationally, photographs of refugees fleeing war and persecution always include elderly people whose hold on life is tenuous.

Discussion of ageing is often confined to practical matters. The deeper questions of why older people matter and of what value a good society should put on them are either answered in slogans or not considered at all.

These questions are best put in a broader framework than that of age. I have found attractive the image of the 'seamless garment' of questions to do with life. It was widely used in the 1980s by Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernadin to argue for a consistent ethic of life that extended from conception to death, and to view within a broad vision the controversial issues of abortion, capital punishment, war and euthanasia. He was widely criticised by people who focused on single issues of individual or social morality for minimising the absolute importance of their cause.

The image of the seamless garment is resonant in Christian circles: in John's Gospel Jesus' possessions were divided among the soldiers who crucified him, but his garment was not cut up because it was seamless. The image was much used in the early church to commend unity in the face of the differences and hostilities that threatened to tear it apart.

At the heart of the image of the seamless garment of life is the recognition that life is a gift and a privilege. It is therefore to be respected, nurtured and served. It is not a possession to be used or discarded, to be bartered or to be cut according to the demands of the situation. The value of life comes