THERE is a lovely custom in Italy that the eldest family member at the dinner table gets the choicest cut of meat and the most sauce on their pasta. Everyone else sits on their hands until Nonna and Nonno (Granny and Grandad) have had their fill. Considering how much Italians love their grub, that's a high mark of respect.
This esteem for the elderly struck me everywhere I went on my recent hols to Italy. It is not unusual for grandparents to play an active role in raising their grandchildren, as their own parents did when their families were young. It's a pay-it-forward system. Everyone has a role and a value and a place.
How striking a contrast then to come home and open the papers to a very grim headline. Almost 2,000 cases of alleged abuse of the elderly were forwarded to the HSE last year. Half of these allegations were made against a son or daughter of the alleged victim. We Irish are supposed to have that one thing in common with the Italians -- that we love our mammies. How did it come to this?
The reported complaints make for upsetting reading. The allegations run the gamut of psychological abuse, financial abuse, neglect. In a sickening 14pc of cases, the abuse was reported to be physical.
The true level of elder abuse must surely run deeper and more widespread than this. As with children, we are talking about a section of society that is vulnerable, isolated and increasingly voiceless. The allegations being reported to the HSE are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg because so many are incapable of complaint. Or unwilling, should their abusers happen to be the very people they are dependent on day-to-day.
At what point did the blessing of having our parents and grandparents still alive and participating in family life become a burden rather than a cause for celebration? The onus is on us, the physically able, the financially 'viable', to change how we look at older people.
There is a tendency to afford status to people depending on what they're worth to our economy. Ask any newly-unemployed person how valued they feel. They miss the salary, sure, but they'll often talk about their sense of worthlessness because society doesn't see them as 'contributing'. I fear we secretly feel the same about people in retirement even if they have spent a lifetime diligently paying their taxes.
It's not just an individual attitude towards old folks. It's institutionalised too. How often do you hear of relatives crying out for more support to help invalided parents? How does a family value an older relative when society at large essentially considers them a drain or -- that horrible term -- a 'bed blocker'?
It's not a huge surprise that tensions and resentments will spring up. And abuse, yes, abuse too, although no measure of frustration should ever be an excuse for it.
We just have to do our best to see the real worth of our older generations. We have to afford status to non-monetary things like wisdom and experience.
Many people tell my 90-year-old grandfather that he is lucky to be living with his daughter, my mother. She would say otherwise. She dreads the day she can't sit down in front of the fire with him of an evening. I dread the phone call that I know will surely come. But we'll be happy that we knew what we had when we had it. How many can say as much?