'Seamless garment' extends to care for older Australians



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.

Older womanWhatever 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 from the unique value of each human being, whether old or young, and the respect due to them.

As habitual attitudes, respect and gratitude for life as a gift may be contrasted with control over life as a possession to be used, directed and cut by choice. In the logic of choice, life will be negotiable at each stage and in each situation from birth to death, either at the choice of the individual or of the state. There is no seamless garment of life to be respected but a collection of ribbons to be torn off or let flutter as the individual or national situation demands.


"Underlying the International Day of Older Persons is the insight that life is a gift and that from its beginning to its ending, people deserve respect. That should be a common cause."


Setting these two attitudes to life in sharp contrast highlights the different directions in which they lead. It also explains the mutual incomprehension that often marks discussion on issues to do with life. Usually, however, people alternate between the two approaches, depending on the topic under discussion. Understandably so, because choice and gift are not contraries. The freedom to choose is central to the unique gift of each human life, and so is to be celebrated and defended. But as an expression of life, it should not be used to destroy life but to enhance it. the International Day of Older Persons invites us to make this choice for life.

This means we should also find room for a seamless rhetoric in conversation about life, built both on respect for life and for freedom of choice. The image of the seamless garment recognises both common ground and for difference of judgment when discussing the issues it embraces. It therefore encourages us to explore the limits of choice and of the claims of life across all its stages.

The centre of any rhetoric of the seamless robe does not lie in words but in symbolic action. It includes such disparate activities as caring for and accompanying old people, demanding proper regulation of nursing homes to ensure that they can live freely and decently, protesting against military actions and penal measures that deter people from choosing life and advocating for an economic framework that allows families to raise children decently.

Underlying the International Day of Older Persons is the insight that life is a gift and that from its beginning to its ending, people deserve respect. That should be a common cause.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, International Day of Older Persons, euthanasia



submit a comment

Existing comments

I know a man whose father suddenly died when he was 14. He was the carer of his mother until she was 95. He was living off the carers pension, and his mother's. I have no doubt he loved his mother with whom he lived with until he was 65. Though he lost 'it' towards the end. He showed me a photo of her a week before she died. She was wrapped up in a blanket sitting in armchair. Looking very much like an egyptian mummy, not dissimilar to the photo in the other article. He accused the doctors and nurses of killing his mother, when finally she was taken to hospital and died shortly after. It is clear to me the trauma of losing his father at such a tender age caused him to develop a morbid obsessive attachment towards his mother to the very end. Not always those who have the POA over their" loved one", are granting them adequate care, but are the very first to deny them human dignity and lawful human rights, by also like in this case, isolating them, and refusing loving family members their rights and the rights of the friends of the elderly to visit. This particular form of abuse does not happen in age care facilities.

AO | 28 September 2017  

As a fellow senior citizen, in relatively good health and firing on all cylinders, I appreciated your 'seamless garment' vision for Australian society. I think Australian society has many, many good things about it and we need to build on that. In a supposedly divisive time we do need to look at what binds, rather than divides, us. The monochrome, supposedly 'Christian' Australia of the 1960s is no more. I am not sure that is not a bad thing. Jesus was not a narrowly sectarian figure. I remember those words of the late, great Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, probably one of the most incisive Christian thinkers of the 20th Century, who said Jesus had not come to found an organisation but to change the world. Australia's growing multicultural, multifaith society is, like Canada's, something the world should look to as a model, a model with faults, of course, but the good things far outweighing the faults. Jesus was Jewish and the Jewish people have always placed tremendous emphasis on the family, as do Muslims and those from the Confucian Tradition. We can learn much from them. I think we need to broaden our vision of who 'we' are. 'We' are not 'alone'.

Edward Fido | 29 September 2017  

This article omits the key area where I have found fellow members of Exit International all agree. Getting control with the means REDUCES the wish to act on suicide.The need to have a legal way of NOT having to avoid criminalising ones dearest is the best of all the outcomes of the proposed legislation. I simply cannot believe that anyone who has got close to these issues personally can agree with the moralistic 'lets legally constrain the other and criminalise the dearest of they know' approach of the churches.

marcus Wigan | 30 September 2017  

“As habitual attitudes, respect and gratitude for life as a gift may be contrasted with control over life as a possession to be used, directed and cut by choice …. The freedom to choose is central to the unique gift of each human life … [but] it should not be used to destroy life but to enhance it.” These statements don’t answer the arguments of people such as Professor Carmel McNaught writing in another part of ES about responses to the proposed Victorian euthanasia laws. Life is a possession which is given to a person as a gift, true, but the gift may be a boon, an injury, or a boon which turns into an injury. The practical turn of the argument against euthanasia is that injury has been ameliorated or vitiated today by advances in palliative care. That is really beside the point. Why was it wrong to euthanise the suffering aged at a time when there was no palliative care? If you can’t defend life from first principles, you can’t defend it at all.

Roy Chen Yee | 30 September 2017  

People should be valued expressed in action, not just words.

Michael Q. | 19 October 2017  

Thank you for this article. I am 81 and my 79 year old sister, suffering from Alzheimer's is near death. She is cared for beautifully. At John Paul 11 Nursing Home ? She is surrounded by her children and sisters, brothers, uncle, friends. A special time for a special person, whom in a sense when farewelled a long time ago. As. She goes to meet her maker she is at peaceful and ready to move to a new stage of life.

Margaret Lamb | 22 October 2017  

Similar Articles

Please treasure marriage

  • Michael McVeigh
  • 05 October 2017

On the one hand, one could look at the campaign for marriage equality and feel that it's refreshing that a section of society wants marriage to be affirmed and made more available. But what are people really going to be voting on when they make their decision in the postal survey?


Notes from India's margins

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 04 October 2017

A Jesuit priest who has worked for over 30 years in India with the poorest villagers, Tony Herbert grapples with three questions: what to make of poverty, what happens when you commit yourself to people who are indigent, and how, in living, the three aspects of poverty - religious poverty, material poverty and its injustices, and personal emptiness - come together. He builds his reflections around encounters with villagers on his own journey.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up