One of the most interesting and instructive illustrations of the design of our Creator, in the institution of the family state, is the preservation of the aged after their faculties decay and usefulness in ordinary modes seems to be ended. By most persons this period of infirmities and uselessness is anticipated with apprehension, especially in the case of those who have lived an active, useful life, giving largely of service to others, and dependent for most resources of enjoyment on their own energies.
To lose the resources of sight or hearing, to become feeble in body, so as to depend on the ministries of others, and finally to gradually decay in mental force and intelligence, to many seems far worse than death. Multitudes have prayed to be taken from this life when their usefulness is thus ended.
But a true view of the design of the family state, and of the ministry of the aged and helpless in carrying out this design, would greatly lessen such apprehensions, and might be made a source of pure and elevated enjoyment.
The Christian virtues of patience with the unreasonable, of self-denying labor for the weak, and of sympathy with the afflicted, are dependent, to a great degree, on cultivation and habit, and these can be gained only in circumstances demanding the daily exercise of these graces. In this aspect, continued life in the aged and infirm should be regarded as a blessing and privilege to a family, especially to the young, and the cultivation of the graces that are demanded by that relation should be made a definite and interesting part of their education. A few of the methods to be attempted for this and will be suggested.
In the first place, the object for which the aged are preserved in life, when in many cases they would rejoice to depart, should be definitely kept in recollection, and a sense of gratitude and obligation be cultivated. They should be looked up to and treated as ministers sustained by our Heavenly Father in a painful experience, expressly for the good of those around them. This appreciation of their ministry and usefulness will greatly lessen their trials, and impart consolation. If, in hours of weariness and infirmity, they wonder why they are kept in a useless and helpless state to burden others around, they should be assured that they are not useless; and this not only by word, but, better still, by the manifestation of those virtues which such opportunities alone can secure.
Another mode of cheering the aged is to engage them in the domestic games and sports which unite the old and the young in amusement. Many a weary hour may thus be enlivened for the benefit of all concerned. And here will often occur opportunities of self-denying benevolence in relinquishing personal pursuits and gratification thus to promote the enjoyment of the infirm and dependent. Reading aloud is often a great source of enjoyment to those who by age are deprived of reading for themselves. So the effort to gather news of the neighborhood and impart it, is another mode of relieving those deprived of social gatherings.
There is no period in life when those courtesies of good-breeding which recognize the relations of superior and inferior should be more carefully cherished than when there is need of showing them toward those of advancing age. To those who have controlled a household, and still more to those who in public life have been honored and admired, the decay of mental powers is peculiarly trying, and every effort should be made to lessen the trial by courteous attention to their opinions, and by avoiding all attempts to controvert them, or to make evident any weakness or fallacy in their conversation.
In regard to the decay of bodily or mental faculties, much more can be done to prevent or retard them than is generally supposed, and some methods for this end which have been gained by observation or experience will be presented.
As the exercise of all our faculties tends to increase their power, unless it be carried to excess, it is very important that the aged should be provided with useful employment suited to their strength and capacity. Nothing hastens decay so fast as to remove the stimulus of useful activity. It should become a study with those who have the care of the aged to interest them in some useful pursuit, and to convince them that they are in some measure actively contributing to the general welfare. In the country and in families where the larger part of the domestic labor is done without servants, it is very easy to keep up an interest in domestic industrial employments. The tending of a small garden in summer, the preparation of fuel and food, the mending of household utensils - these and many other occupations of the hands will keep alive activity and interest in a man; while for women there are still more varied resources. There is nothing that so soon hastens decay and lends acerbity to age as giving up all business and responsibility, and every mode possible should be devised to prevent this result.
As age advances, all the bodily functions move more slowly, and consequently the generation of animal heat, by the union of oxygen and carbon in the capillaries, is in smaller proportion than in the midday of life. For this reason some practices, safe for the vigorous, must be relinquished by the aged; and one of these is the use of the cold bath. It has often been the case that rheumatism has been caused by neglect of this caution. More than ordinary care should be taken to preserve animal heat in the aged, especially in the hands and the feet.
In many families will be found an aged brother, or sister, or other relative who has no home, and no claim to a refuge in the family circle but that of kindred. Sometimes they are poor and homeless, for want of a faculty for self-supporting business; and sometimes they have peculiarities of person or disposition which render their society undesirable. These are cases where the pitying tenderness of the Saviour should be remembered, and for his sake patient kindness and tender care be given, and he will graciously accept it as an offering of love and duty to himself. "Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me."
It is sometimes the case that even parents in old age have had occasion to say, with the forsaken King Lear, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" It is right training in early life alone that will save from this.
In the opening of China and the probable influx of its people, there is one cause for congratulation to a nation that is failing in the virtue of reverence. The Chinese are distinguished above all other nations for their respect for the aged, and especially for their reverence for aged parents and conformity to their authority, even to the last. This virtue is cultivated to a degree that is remarkable, and has produced singular and favorable results on the national character, which it is hoped may be imparted to the land to which they are flocking in such multitudes. For with all their peculiarities of pagan philosophy and their Oriental eccentricities of custom and practical life, they are everywhere renowned for their uniform and elegant courtesy - a most commendable virtue, and one arising from habitual deference to the aged more than from any other source.
But every person, in approaching the trials and helplessness of age, needs to consider that the very performance of these duties toward one's self by all around may tend to induce a selfish and exacting spirit, or querulous complaints at forgetfulness or neglect. And constant service and petting may tempt to self-indulgent uselessness. Approaching age sometimes leads to the relinquishment of active life; and this tends to induce imbecility of body and mind, which, like all instruments, are kept bright by use. The course of wisdom is to redouble exertions in cultivating self-denying regard for the convenience and comfort of others, and perpetuating, as far as possible, useful labors.
One of the most lovely and beautiful features in a family circle is the aged father or mother sympathizing in the joys and sorrows of the young, and watching for occasions to please and serve all around.