Pope Francis met with participants of an international conference of health care workers today, reminding them that the elderly and sick play an important role in life.

The elderly "carry within themselves the memory and the wisdom of life, in order to hand it on to others, and they participate fully in the mission of the Church," he said on Nov. 23 in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

Offering a special "greeting to the elderly," Pope Francis continued, "dear friends, you are not just recipients of the Gospel message, but you are always also fully proclaimers by virtue of your baptism."

"Every day you can live as witnesses of the Lord, in your families, in parishes, and in other common situations, making Christ and his gospel known, especially to young people."

Saturday's "Meeting of prayer and reflection for the Sick and Health Care Workers with the Holy Father" came at the end of a three day meeting entitled, "The Church at the service of elderly persons who are ill: the care of persons affected by neurodegenerative diseases," hosted by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers.

As he has done in the past, the pontiff emphasized that those who are aging are not merely objects of pity.

"I wish to repeat again that the elderly have always protagonists in the Church, and they remain so to this day. And today more than ever the Church must set an example for the whole of society of the fact that they, in spite of inevitable 'ailments,' sometimes serious, are always important, indeed, indispensible."

Because of longer life expectancy, "an increasing number of people experience neurodegenerative diseases, often accompanied by a deterioration of cognitive abilities."

In the face of this reality, Pope Francis noted the need for treatment "aimed at respecting the dignity, identity, and needs of the patient, but also of those who assist them, family members, and professionals," since these diseases affect "the world of social health… as well as the family, which remains the privileged place of warmth and closeness."

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Such treatment will only be possible "in an environment of trust and as part of a mutually respectful relationship."

To this end, the pontiff went on to "underline the importance of the religious and spiritual aspects" of care so that the relationship between the patient and caregiver becomes "a very rich experience" rather than "simple and cold 'physical protection.'"

Along with a "traditional biomedical model" of care, there must also be an "enriched space of dignity and freedom, far from the closures and silences that too often surround people in the field of care."

The spiritual and religious dimension of care "remains viable even when cognitive abilities are reduced or lost," he explained. 

Thus, "it is a matter of implementing a particular pastoral approach to accompany the religious life of older people with serious degenerative diseases" so as not to "interrupt their relationship with God."

Christina Puchaliski, a medical doctor and professor of medicine at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, attended this morning's meeting with the Pope.

She said that seeing Pope Francis "was very moving," especially because in her work as the founder of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, Puchaliski urges caregivers to be "not a dogmatic presence, but a loving presence, which this Pope exemplifies."

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"When you see him – I was fortunate to sit close – when you see his love and compassion for people who are suffering, that is a model that we all should emulate," she told CNA.

Father Piotr Krakowiak, National Chaplain for hospices in Poland, was also in attendance.

As someone involved with hospice for more than 20 years, Fr. Krakowiak was quick to notice that the "longest line" to see Pope Francis "was the line of the handicapped and sick."

Although previous pontiffs have also taken time to visit the infirmed, the "accent" that Pope Francis places on such meetings was "very clear."

"It's something that I consider a gift to the Church," explained the priest.  "We used to say 'the sick are the treasure of the Church' – well, he shows that in a very practical way.  So for me as a priest involved in healthcare, in hospice, that's a very, very important insight."