Tony Walter writing on the website The Conversation suggests an interesting perspective on how society ought to think about those of us who are at the end of life. He suggests that we need to provide the same protection for them that we offer to children. He is not suggesting that we take away the autonomy and independence of our parents and grandparents, but that if we focus solely on the autonomy of those who are at the end of life we run the risk of abandoning them. In early childhood, all of us live in a state of dependence and we recognize the responsibility that parents must provide for the needs of their children. We also recognize the societal responsibility when parents are unable to or for other reasons do not provide for the needs of their children. He is saying that there are many among us who enter into a state of dependence as they age and develop diminished capacity to provide for their own needs. When this occurs we as a society have a responsibility to see that those needs are provided for, while still recognizing and encouraging whatever autonomy those elderly persons in need still possess.
In my practice, I commonly see situations in which children begin to take on a parenting role toward an aging mother or father with diminished capacity to care for her his own needs. At times, this is awkward and may be resisted by either the parent or the child, but it can be done well with respect for the aging parent and gratitude on the part of the child for how the parent cared for him or her at the beginning of life. It would be good for us to recognize this symmetry of life with dependence at both its beginning and end, and embrace it rather than ignoring or avoiding it.
The focus on autonomy and self-reliance in our society can at times be productive but also can be destructive. Those of us who are Christians should be able to understand that no matter how capable we are we are all dependent. None of us is capable of being what God desires for us to be on our own. We are all dependent upon him to be transformed into the representation of his image that he desires for us to be. If we can recognize that dependence is something that we all share we can respond to the needs of the frail elderly among us in a way that both respects and protects them.