The Challenge of Old Age
Since the last war, better nutrition, health care and living standards have resulted in increased life expectancy. The average life span is now ten years longer than it was a generation ago and senior citizens are the fastest-growing section of our society. It has been estimated that approximately one person in six is retired and the number of over 80s in the United Kingdom is growing by about ten thousand each year. Old age — its status, problems and opportunities -- is presenting a challenge which cannot be overlooked.
Problems of Old Age
At a time when they long for stability older people are often called on to face drastic, and sometimes unwelcome, changes— moving home, retirement from a job, the loss of a partner. As their physical powers wane they may have to cope with illness, pain or loss of mobility. Loneliness is a very real problem, as contemporaries die and families move. They become increasingly aware that their life on earth is nearly over and many are afraid of dying. Finance, too, can cause concern, since half of the elderly are trying to make ends meet on less than half the average wage. It is not a time of life to be sentimentalised but to be faced with such realism as that shown in chapter 12 of Ecclesiastes.
Pressures from Society
While our society provides a high level of medical and social care, the problems of the elderly are being aggravated by certain social and cultural trends. Smaller and more mobile families are leading to the break-up of the extended family unit and this disintegration is further encouraged by the instability of marriage and the practice of both husband and wife going out to work. The result is that we are moving towards a society in which all the young and able-bodied are fully occupied with their own lives and older people are left without any relatives able to help care for them.
The development of the welfare state has not proved an unmixed blessing. It has created a "leave it to them" mentality, the tendency of the citizen to shrug off his own responsibilities with the comforting reflection that the state provides all that old people need. They are then abandoned to the mercy of an impersonal bureaucracy and starved of friendship and individual care.
The rampant disrespect for human life which is evidenced in the murder of thousands of the unborn is bound to affect those at the other end of life, especially as they consume an ever-increasing proportion of medical resources. Abortion will, paradoxically, have a child—called euthanasia.
Perhaps the most subtle, yet frightening, pressure which society exerts upon the elderly is its widespread worship of youth. Our culture glorifies the young, strong and beautiful. A whole industry is devoted to staving off the signs of aging, because, in the Western world, to be old is the unforgivable sin. The question of the popular song: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?" is beginning to be answered in the negative.
The Perspective of the Bible
The Word of God stands firmly opposed to current devaluation of the old. They are to be given honour and respect: "Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God" (Leviticus 19: 32). Their advice is to be sought: "Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old" (Proverbs 23: 22). Old people are not some separate species, but people who happen to be old— - ordinary people, whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, to care for in their need, to treat as valuable and important. Christians must lead the way in loving the elderly sacrificially, imaginatively and perseveringly. We must provide a model which, by God's grace, society may be led to follow.
The Responsibility of the Family
Scripture places the main responsibility for the care of the elderly upon the shoulders of younger relations. Such care is regarded as an essential element of saving religion: "If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of an to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God . . . If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5: 4, 8).
These verses of course require more of us than financial support. Older people are to be recognised as part of the family, not overlooked or pushed to one side. Their advice and help should be sought whenever appropriate. If they live on their own— - which is usually desirable in the interests of maintaining identity and independence -- there should be frequent visiting and contacts. Nor should this be thought of as "one-way traffic", for grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles have an immense contribution to make to the younger generation. Young people who cultivate the society of their elders will find their own lives deeply enriched. There is, too, the promise of God's blessing upon a faithful observance of the fifth commandment: "Honour your father and mother —- which is the first commandment with a promise— - that it may go wed with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth" (Ephesians 6: 2, 3).
The Responsibility of the Church
The church must assure the elderly among its membership that they are an important part of the body. The often-repeated statement that "the young people are the hope of the church" is not biblical. God is the hope of the church and He is able to use any of His people, no matter what their age, in its growth and up-building. In fact, the maturity, wisdom and graciousness which often accompany old age are among the most valuable assets at the church's disposal.
Those who have walked with God for many years. have a treasury of practical and spiritual experience upon which younger Christians can— - and should— - draw. Paul, for example, says that older women should "train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God" (Titus 2: 4, 5). Any congregation which despises its elderly is quenching the Spirit.
The church is also responsible for providing teaching aimed specifically at the old. Instruction should be given on such subjects as facing death, coping with loneliness and bereavement, handling pain and disability in a God-honouring way. They should be reminded of the nearness of heaven and urged to rejoice in it and to prepare themselves for it. Every age group has its peculiar temptations and difficulties and the discerning pastor will try to meet the real needs of his people from the Word of God.
The elderly should be directed to new avenues of Christian service. In most congregations there are active men and women who have retired from their life's work and who now have energy and skills—sometimes of a high order— - available for the work of the kingdom. Are they being used or wasted? The church should see to it that such gifts are utilised, either congregationally or denominationally. The housebound and frail can be encouraged to devote themselves to the most valuable ministry of all—that of intercessory prayer. What a blessing that may prove! A church which takes trouble to enlist its older members for fruitful service will be giving them a sense of worth as well as reaping the benefits of their work.
Finally, the church should consider practical ways of helping the elderly in the local community.This might tee done by visiting, holding social meetings or providing meals in the church buildings. or by offering help with shopping, gardening or household repairs. The provision of residential accommodation for those who need it is an excellent application of the principle of love for one's neigh bour.
The Responsibility of the Elderly Themselves
Basic to all human dignity is the willingness to accept responsibility for oneself and one's own behaviour and this is to be encouraged in the elderly. Difficult as their circumstances may be, they have no right to be selfish, complaining or critical. They may not make unreasonable demands upon their relations and friends, nor act as if the world should revolve around them. They too must continue to struggle against their sin and ask for daily grace to overcome it.
Old age can be an opportunity for making new friends, developing new interests, discovering fresh ways of service, spending more time in fellowship with God. It can be happy and winsome or empty and sad—depending largely on the faith and grace of the person involved. To the elderly God has given precious promises and they are called to depend on these and to demonstrate their truth for His glory.
"Even to your old age and grey hairs l am he, l am he who will sustain you. I hare made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you" (Isaiah 46: 4).
"They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, 'The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him' " (Psalm 92: 14, 15).