Today is United Nations Older Person's Day. 'The family', a receptacle for both motherhood and apple pie, is a term that prospers from vagueness. It invariably gets a good press from religious leaders and politicians - a less good one from psychiatrists and anthropologists. Only the latter two will risk defining it too closely.
Today's default position is usually that a family is made up of parent/s and children, in other words the appropriately named 'nuclear family', increasingly fissile and labile in the 21st Century. It is a position that is, of course, contested. But, the surprising thing is that most religious leaders, even in parts of the world where the family is "extended" sometimes beyond breaking point, adopt the default definition. Whether in Friday khutba or Sunday preaching, Synagogue or Temple, you will be lucky to hear the word "grandparents" in a sermon on the family.
In Europe and North America, where both parents - or single parents - seek to be employed, grandparents can play a vital role in family life, no strangers to the school gate or to out-patients and clinics. I have discovered a new class of slave grand-parents who repair toilets, paint houses, and change nappies while their offspring go about their lawful professional pursuits. Invaluable members of the modern polis you might say. We are a long way from Granny in her little Irish cottage, sitting contently by the fireside graciously receiving cups of tea, at the heart of the family. And what divorce court considers access to the children for the grandparents?
The contemporary situation in the less industrialised world also has some surprising features. I remember sitting in an august assembly of African bishops and archbishops listening to an interminable allocution on the family by a Vatican official. No one would have guessed that in many parts of Africa the only thing sustaining the family was surviving grandparents, looking after AIDS orphans, stretched to their physical and financial limits. The family was made up of grandparents and a lot of dependent children. In some countries it seemed that almost a whole generation was about to go missing.
The problem is that the discussion about health and old people is generally about end of life care. Many who are not religious would prefer to be in a faith-inspired hospice. Religious communities are good, sometimes exceptionally good at treating the dying as whole people. This is primarily because each patient is allowed to remain a - loved - subject until the process of dying turns them inevitably into a - loved - object of terminal care.
Take this simple principle to heart and it is obvious that the old are no less able to "make their own history", be the subject of work for the Common Good rather than recipients of it, as anyone else. Social and pastoral action in Africa in both Muslim and Christian communities ought to concentrate on their needs as the new providers and home-makers, making orphanages a last resort. The alternative is desperate individuals, unable to cope, sometimes resorting to witchcraft accusation against children as the means to alleviate an intolerable burden on their own health and resources.
At the same time, it is the trust and authority of "elders" that makes them ideal purveyors of health messages directed at behaviour change. Whether it is HIV/AIDS or malaria and tuberculosis, suitably trained, the "elders" in parish and mosque council and community have the locus standi to influence households in their neighbourhood. The assumption of some inherent wisdom vouchsafed by age may be ill-founded, but in most societies - some European exceptionalism admitted here - it is culturally determined.
If people of different faiths are to live harmoniously together rather than burn down each other's mosques and churches, wisdom will be at a premium. Yet there can be wisdom in one area of human experience coupled with profound ignorance in another, an absence of medical understanding but an abundance of social skills. Interventions with new knowledge, training in public health, should not be seen in this context as either manipulative nor patronising and colonial.
One thing is clear: health and the care of future generations is a common entry point into useful dialogue for people of all faiths and none. Discuss the generation gap and consensus is quickly reached within different age groups. Discuss health and everyone has the same concerns irrespective of nationality, ethnicity or religion. These are privileged starting points of interfaith dialogue. It is time we thought of old people as potential agents of holistic approaches to health, as subjects and agents of health care, as well as potential translators between the ideas and culture of different generations. Because, of course, they can be disastrously bad at both.
In these days of maximum transparency I better declare an interest. At the last count this means declaring 14 grandchildren. But this represents a net financial loss. Unfortunately not for tax purposes.
Follow Ian Linden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@TonyBlair_TBFF