Aging and Disability was the topic of the 20th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life held last week in Rome.

With the advance of medical technology, there is a longer life expectancy worldwide.  Along with increased lifespan, there will also be greater number of elderly with some sort of disability.

Globally speaking, there are actually more people over the age of 60 than under the age of five.  By 2030, there will be more people in the over 60 age group than the under 10 age group.  The WHO estimates about 1 billion individuals are disabled worldwide of which 25% of them are elderly.

Many of the disabilities are also lifestyle related, and with age these are often related to strokes, heart diseases, diabetes, arthritis, dementia and their consequences. Morbidity is related to availability of healthcare and poverty.

As a result of increasing number of elderly and disabled persons, many countries are faced with the problem of rising budget to care for them. Everywhere, concerns regarding allocation, accessibility, quality and financial sustainability are raised.  There is fear that this problem will eventually implode with great social unrest in the near future.

Catholic Social Doctrine can come to the rescue with the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. The former can promote networking with family and kinship as organic social structures as alternative to governmental aid.  Subsidiarity also calls for decentralization and demedicalization of old age and this might offer relief.  Several speakers also mention the need to change the mode of healthcare delivery with a greater emphasis on prevention and education.

The elderly and disabled are considered weak and vulnerable groups in society.  The modern mindset is faced with two difficult and sometimes contradictory responses.  On the one hand, the emphasis on care, justice and non-discrimination demands a greater attention to those in need.  On the other hand, the hedonistic and utilitarian mentality which exalts perfection and perpetual youthfulness has a difficult time accepting the fragility and dependency of these groups.  The latter emphasize our autonomy and self-fulfillment can lead to a promotion of euthanasia and assisted suicide as the solution to their diminished capacity.

This ambivalence is noted in the 2008 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  While there are positive elements that are mentioned in the protection of the disabled, the convention was not signed by the Holy See because it affirms for the first time a fundamental right to abortion.

French ethicist Marie Jo Thiel speaks of the need to have a paradigm shift with regards to people with disabilities, to look of them not only as needful and vulnerable, but also to empower them through human rights and an ethic of care that recognizes them as our fellow brothers and sisters.

Aging is a mysterious condition that science is trying to penetrate and perhaps conquer.  The average lifespan worldwide has tripled in the last 100 years. Can we further extend our life anymore? The goal of modern medicine seems to aim at prolonging life without disability. There are many researchers trying to discover the cause of aging in order to stun or reverse it.  Regenerative medicine aims at replacing damaged cells and tissues through stem cell therapy. But we must ask the question: is it worth the while, and at what cost? Can life be prolonged indefinitely, and is a disability free existence the ultimate goal of medicine? The Christian faith offers us an alternative about the meaning of immortality.

As Pope Francis recent address to the Academy members said, “Health is certainly an important value, yet it does not determine a person’s value…The gravest deprivation experienced by the aged is not the weakening of one’s physical body, nor the disability that may result from this. Rather, it is the abandonment, exclusion and deprivation of love.”

Fr. Joseph Tham is a professor at the School of Bioethics, Pontifical Ateneo Regina Apostolorum