VATICAN CITY (CNS) — More people live longer, but their quality of life may actually worsen because too often the elderly are not respected and, when they get ill, they may be abandoned, said speakers at a Vatican conference.

In fact, emotional, social and spiritual support often has not kept up with the advancements made by health care and medicine, several speakers said.

“No technology, no medicine can ever replace what the most fragile people need” like loving care and attention, said Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio Community, a Rome-based lay movement that works with the poor and disenfranchised.


Riccardi was one of the speakers at an international conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry Nov. 21-23.

Some 700 people — including doctors, health care practitioners, volunteers and religious men and women — attended the meeting to discuss “The Church at the Service of Sick Elderly People: Care for People with Neurodegenerative Pathologies.”

The incidence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other pathologies that affect the nervous system and impair mental or motor function, is on the rise, speakers said. Estimates say 7.7 million new cases appear each year, and by 2030, more than 65 million people worldwide are expected to be living with a neurodegenerative illness.

Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, council president, said in his opening remarks that increased wealth and medical progress have led to more people being able to live a longer life. However, “the diminishment of the family’s role in assuring social support and the frequent marginalization of the elderly have made it so that the fate of the elderly who are ill has paradoxically worsened.”

The lack of social and emotional support also has added to “the temptation to turn to euthanasia” when faced with debilitating and incurable disease, the archbishop said.

“Today’s society, with all of its technical successes, is really not capable of alleviating the suffering of old people,” if it doesn’t offer “human love, the only means capable of healing the wounds of an old person’s soul,” he said.

Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau, an official at the Pontifical Academy for Life, said in his talk that there is a greater need for more “solidarity and justice” when it comes to investing in prevention and offering holistic care to everyone.

He, and many speakers, said the best place for the elderly, especially when ill, is with their family.

It is “the best place, mentally and spiritually,” for everyone, and provides the older person with the affection, stimulation and attention they need, the monsignor said.

However, families often cannot respond without adequate resources and support to overcome the many “concrete problems” and difficulties that come with caring for the aged and ill at home, Archbishop Zimowski said.

Marcia Barbacki, a conference participant who has worked 32 years as an occupational therapist helping families, caregivers and elderly patients in southwestern Florida, said a lot of health care programs don’t provide families with the referrals and information they need to get the right help.

Families and caregivers need special training and encouragement to deal with the confusion, agitation and aggression displayed by people with dementia, she told Catholic News Service Nov. 21.

She said one patient she had, for example, became happy and calm when music was played. “He’d start smiling and dancing with his wife when just 30 seconds before he was agitated and upset.”

There’s a great risk today of overusing or abusing anti-psychotic drugs to heavily sedate patients rather than invest the time and people needed to deal with patients’ behavioral problems, she said.

“It takes time, it takes money, and there’s no quick fix like a pill,” she said.

Anti-psychotic drugs, which are meant to treat hallucinations and extreme mental disturbances, are often prescribed “off label” for dementia because of their somnolence or calming effect, she said.

“Health care practitioners should exercise caution with the use of these drugs on frail elderly people with dementia because of the increased risk of stroke and heart attack,” she said.

As doctors continue to look for a cure or ways to slow or reduce degenerative illnesses, much progress has been made in using adult stem cells to treat Parkinson’s, one medical researcher said.

Ole Isacson, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, told CNS that they can “actually reverse cell loss in the part of the brain that controls the initiation of movement,” which is hampered by Parkinson’s, and “restore brain function in those regions.”

Adult skin cells are turned into stem cells, which are then made into a neuron, he said. The resulting “fine liquid of cells” is implanted in the brain in a one-time, “fairly delicate surgical procedure,” he said. Fortunately the induced pluripotent stem cells derived from adult cells “bypass” the ethical concerns that come with the use of embryonic stem cells, he said.

“So far, for cell therapy, Parkinson’s disease is the most promising,” he said, because “the other degenerative diseases are more complicated.”

“But you never know, with some new innovation one day (cell therapy) will be able to help the other diseases as well,” Isacson said.