In today’s guest post, Denyse O’Leary ponders what our increased longevity means for the Papacy, along with the reasons behind it.

Due to medical advances, popes (like other people) live much longer than they used to—and might easily outlive their cognitive abilities, a fact that Benedict clearly recognized and had begun to plan for years ago.

One problem with John Paul II’s death in office was that the Vatican was paralyzed for months during his final illness. His conduct was inspiring, to be sure, but the situation was not administratively helpful. Good things that John Paul II wanted to do just could not get done.

Benedict relied on canons put in by a predecessor to whom he had a special devotion, 12th century Pope St. Celestine V, which allow a Pope to resign and allow the Cardinals to choose a successor. Sorry, scandal mongers.  Go somewhere else for your prey. So let’s talk about what we can learn from all this for our own families! The number of centenarians is growing, probably across the developed world. 

 For example, from Canada, we learn,

Between 2006 and 2011, the rate of population growth for this age group was 25.7%, the second highest of all age groups among the Canadian population, after the 60 to 64 age group (+29.1%). The growth rate of the centenarian population has often been one of the highest of all age groups in the last 40 years.

It’s striking, but not unusual. The United States and Australia show similar figures. Granted, one hundred is only a number, perhaps easily exploited. But when you consider all the people who also reached 95 or 97.  Just today, a friend wrote me to say that the average age of a local community retirement home for seniors used to be 85, but is now closer to 95. 

There are several reasons to explore, and I can do no more than mention two of them in passing: Urbanization means quicker access to emergency health care. A man who was prevented from dying at 63 of a heart attack may live to be 75. It also means easier access to health care in general. If that same man recovers successfully from a prostate operation at 75, he stands a reasonable chance of living to be 85 or more. 

Secondly, the quality of senior care has improved in many places. In the Canadian province of Ontario, for example, care homes are administered under the Residential Tenancies Act. The resident is not a prisoner or even a patient, but rather a tenant who receives agreed services provided by or through the landlord. Many seniors who dread the “old age home” discover, when they check it out (often via respite care), that the better retirement homes are somewhat like seniors’ hotels. 

And the home is designed to prevent the sort of accidents (hip fractures, for example) that used to send seniors on a downhill path, resulting in earlier death. 

One less-understood outcome of the new longevity is that functional families become four-generation families. By functional families, I do not necessarily mean “intact” families, I mean families where most members try to fulfil their responsibilities. If a health care administrator phones you to say that your mother collapsed on the sidewalk, will you think it your duty to come, immediately, cancelling all other engagements? Then you belong to an intact family. 

But four-generation families are comparatively new. Children in or near their sixties are trying to figure out what to do for parents in their late eighties and beyond. That can impact the time they can spend with their grandchildren. One must choose between visiting the grandkid and visiting dad in the Old Folk’s (all the while, the younger senior is usually still working as well). 

No wonder grandchildren say, “Why don’t you come to see me more often?”Stricken through the heart, I may be, but what to do? Also, how to apportion the time and money spent addressing parents’ care issues versus the time and money spent to contribute to the grandkid’s education savings plan? 

Besides, we don’t have the energy we did when we were young, and also don’t always have the wisdom we need. I can’t tell anyone how to address this dilemma except to say that one consideration worth throwing into the mix is that grandkid will probably be here in ten years and dad probably won’t. Easier to catch up with grandkid than with him? But I don’t know. 

Also, senior care issues can be tricky because most seniors are legal adults. One elderly parent of friends has twice escaped from a good care home and gone back to a house now owned by someone else. The care home is not sure that the relationship is working but it is unclear what would work … Depending on the laws of one’s country, seeking legal guardianship can be difficult. 

Pulling in the demographics, a major problem is that 100 grandparents may easily have only 50 or fewer grandchildren today, due to declining birth rates. One advantage that today’s younger seniors today have is that we were the Baby Boom. Chances are, several siblings can divide the work in various ways. 

But what of early senior age offspring of one- or two-child families, attempting to address the needs of three or four grandparents/step-grandparents in blended families or families that never quite got started? The question then becomes not “Should I do my duty?” (Answered by the fifth commandment, Thou shalt honour the father and thy mother) but “What, exactly, IS my duty?” 

At times, it will not be clear. I will do my best to keep abreast of the challenges, which are bound to change and grow.  

 Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...