An interview with José Aste, the Mexican founder of the group "Grandparents for the Family", the experience of support for the elderly presented in recent days on our site
The promoter of the experience
Dr. José Aste Tönsmann, 83 years old, is an ophthalmologist, born in Peru, who has been living in Mexico since 1978. After obtaining a PhD in Philosophy, specialized in Systems Engineering and Operations Research, from Cornell University (USA) in 1979, he began studying the eyes of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe by means of digital image processing. He discovered the representations of 13 people imprinted on the cornea of the image, which appeared miraculously on St. Juan Diego’s tilma. Now a retired grandfather, Dr. Aste is engaged in both social and religious work. He has four children and nine grandchildren.
1) Dr. Aste, can you tell us once again what the two areas of the preparation—i.e. religious and human—provided to the participants of the group "Grandparents for the Family" consist in? Considering the special conditions that characterize old age, we can put them into two groups: physical and spiritual. The latter normally arise from a sense of concern for the elderly, almost always generated by loneliness, when they feel put aside and forgotten by their children, relatives and friends; but equally significant reasons to feel spiritually depressed can be a sense of futility and the proximity of death. On the other hand, we cannot help but consider the particular physical condition of those who are living this moment of human existence, often marked by progressive disability, pains and ailments. In order to respond adequately to these specific conditions of our age group, "Grandparents for the Family" follows a program that includes activities that we could call "religious and human preparation." Under the religious aspect, at every meeting we seek to strengthen our love and devotion to the Lord Jesus, continually asking Him for the gift of His Divine Presence, which allows us to not feel alone any more, and to be able to offer all our sorrows, asking Him to make us able to live in the service of others until the last moment of our lives. In this area, pilgrimages and retreats are very important, for they indeed help to strengthen of our faith. I also think that in order to complete this course, which fully engages the elderly person, it is also essential to introduce them to the latest scientific discoveries and theories concerning the creation of the universe, human evolution, and so on, in such a way that they may respond with valid arguments (especially to their grandchildren and children) in face of the pseudo-scientific knowledge that is now so abundant in our society. Another task that characterizes our "human" preparation intended for the elderly concerns the field of biological knowledge, which deals with questions closely linked to old age such as nutrition, medical care and advice to avoid health problems. In addition to this, we also teach them to socialize and to face the different difficulties in encounters with others.
2) How important is technology training for a grandparent today? I believe basic training in the field of technology is a good thing for four reasons: first of all, it gives grandparents great advantages, especially when it comes to communication and socialization, as well as when they look for information; technological know-how also shows them that "not everything that is new is bad" and that if we use technology properly it can bring significant improvements for all mankind; the third positive aspect is that a course of this kind can help the elderly to understand the mentality of children, youth and adults, by making them share an environment in which the latter are often immersed; finally, the fourth point is that the technological tools make it easier for grandparents to communicate with youth and adults, and so the future generations can better appreciate their advice and experiences, the result of a lifetime. When teaching grandparents and elderly people how to use technology, the key is to avoid delving too deeply into the concepts, talking at length about the theory, because that only leads to a form of rejection of the notions; there should instead be useful hands-on instruction: instead of confusing the grandparents with the contents of an "instruction manual," it is advisable to get them to use the computer for some kind of work that interests them (for example, writing their memories, or finding a recipe, etc.), showing them how to write, highlight a title, put capital letters, insert a picture, and so on.
3) In your opinion, what are the challenges that modernity will place before grandparents in the nearest future? What strategies can be used to face and overcome these challenges? As a senior and as a grandfather, I believe that modernity is making us face basically two types of challenges: the first one comes from the growing attention to young people and to everything that is new and fast, from now largely globalized concepts of "discarding" or "used and broken", which are creating ideas and policies that are hitting the elderly hard, keeping them from "reminding" the new generations of the benefits of forms of life and work that are increasingly absent today and should instead be retrieved and adapted to current conditions. In order to prevent this kind of damage, I think that it is necessary to begin by large gatherings of elders and grandparents, who are self-aware and positively active, able to produce coordinated and consensual proposals and viewpoints, so that they may be listened to by the society and be taken into consideration when decisions, and especially political ones, are made. Next, another challenge comes from the daily attacks against the family. Marriage is being discredited by the secular culture, and it is likely that the divorce-rate will continue to climb and the marriages "forever" decrease. The role of grandparents, who replace parents working outside the home and raise their grandchildren, will always be ever more complicated, because in the near future, as is easy to foresee, the number of children of divorced parents, single mothers and same-sex couples will grow significantly. Therefore, I think that, in addition to asking the Church to make more convinced efforts to restrain drifts by the means of important tools such as the World Meetings of Families, it is desirable to develop many similar initiatives even at the diocesan level. I think, in fact, that the celebration of days dedicated to the elderly, and especially to grandparents, could help greatly to overcome, to a great extent, the decline of the Christian family.
4) Are you satisfied with the progress of your group of grandparents? Have you found some weak points in recent years? And if so, how have you tried to remedy them? I think that, when forming and coordinating a group of people with different goals and defined characteristics, it is never possible to be completely satisfied, and this is even truer when the participants have special traits, as grandparents do. The daily obstacles that we encounter most commonly often appear when we try to get all the grandparents in a parish to participate in the group, when reminding about the meetings and supporting them when they are ill, as well as in the continuous efforts to find moments and resources to make the results of their meetings more visible. Moreover, in regard to the organization, a particular problem—solved by the replacement of the steering committee—emerged only once, when they forgot to keep alive and present the idea that the group of grandparents was born to meet the demand of elderly people who want to be and feel useful by making theirs, in everyday life, the lessons generated by the intertwining of their experiences in dialogue. Moreover, this is very easy, and the results are visibly results, as is seen in most of the centers and groups for the elderly, where the guests are together simply to share pleasant moments, without anything being asked of them, and come into play directly, enriching the experiences of all, by telling about their own lives.
5) Have you ever thought about publishing—in a review, a book or on the internet—the experiences of your grandparents—perhaps grouped by themes—, so that families can consult them and find answers to their problems? I think that the internet is a great way, without major expenses, to share the experiences and advice of a group of grandparents on the problems that the family faces today. With this in mind, some time ago, I launched the blog-lab "Marriage Maintenance" (http://mantematri.blogspot.mx), intended precisely to make one of the results of the group of grandparents accessible: the importance of considering one’s marriage within the context of daily life. In fact, a couple daily faces problems, joys, sorrows, encounters and disagreements in the family or the couple. In this case, then, the workshop, developed with my wife and presented free of charge on the internet, gives married couples the opportunity to examine the state of their marital relationship in such a way that they can, from time to time, to make some "adjustments," in view an ever deeper and more responsible union.
6) What are the future plans of your "Grandparents for the Family"? Have you considered, for example, broadening the base of this experience through partnerships with other parishes or groups, both nationally and internationally? For some time now we have been trying to diffuse the concepts that constitute the foundation of "Grandparents for the Family" and especially to promote the idea of the participants’ sense of being and feeling useful, so now different groups of elderly people, who have accepted this vision, are practicing it. With time, then, I hope to compose a kind of "manual" to help both the formation of new groups and their coordination. In addition, with our parish priest, Father Daniel Garcia, we are preparing a day for seniors and grandparents at the parish level, which, however, may be joined by other parishes of the deanery of the Diocese of Cuernavaca. In my view, this first experience of a celebration dedicated to the elderly will serve as a pilot-event for a day that we would like to organize for next year, in this case at the national level, involving all of Mexico (we‘ve talked a bit about this with La Salle University in Mexico City). As one can see in the wiki page that we are using for the planning and implementation of the project (http://jornadaancianosyabuelos.wikispaces.com), the Day for grandparents organized by our parish will be subdivided into three distinct dates (to make it easier for the elderly to participate): the first part, "Encounter with God for the Elderly and Grandparents," will take place on Wednesday, December 3rd; then, the spiritual-religious aspect of old age will be addressed at the second encounter on the program, under title "The Mission of the Elderly", which will be in Lent next year. Finally, the third meeting, which will focus on "Relations of the Elderly with the World," has been scheduled for Easter Day 2015.
7) What advice would you give to anyone wishing to undertake a creative initiative like yours, in favor of the elderly? In my view, it is essential that the experiences that want to take their inspiration from us have a steering committee to organize them and make the decisions. That having been said, there should always be an effort to use the different skills and abilities of the committee members. It should be remembered that each person has his/her own mission in life together with specific knowledge of the world, and directing them towards the success of the group can be very useful. There may also be some young people on the committee who enthusiastically help with the formation and the proper functioning of the group; however, the major decisions should preferably be taken by the grandparents and the elderly. I want to emphasize that it is very difficult for young people to understand our needs and our vision of life. Moreover, I advise them to not be too picky about the rules and discipline of the group. The most important thing is in fact to participate, to be and feel useful. It should also be kept in mind that it is preferable for members of the group to participate in the activities because they are interested in them, not out of obligation. Therefore, the Steering Committee organizing the project needs to make the program interesting and useful, both to grandparents and to society. A last recommendation, finally, is to write down and share the results and proposals made during the group sessions. In fact, it must not be forgotten that the experiences of grandparents in communion can be very useful for children, young people and adults today.