As ageism increases in society, we Christians must rediscover the value of being older
Given the headlines associated with the elderly, even before the pandemic, it may not be surprising to find that the past five years have seen a surge in ageism in the UK.
The government’s recent announcement of the health and social services tax to help fund social services may have reinforced the perception that older people are a burden on society, with many voicing concerns about the impact that this will have on the younger generations.
You might even observe negative attitudes toward aging among your church family and Christian friends. So why, while we have the hope and certain future of eternal life with God as disciples of Jesus, do we fear the aging process – and how do we approach it?
It’s worth remembering that ageism isn’t just about judging others based on their age, but also how we view our own aging. New research has found that more than half of UK adults now fear growing older as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic – even for those who identify Christianity as their religion.
Five years ago, only 22% of adults were afraid of aging, while today 42% say they fear getting old when asked the same question, a relative change of 91% over half a decade .
As the CEO of a Christian charity that oversees nursing homes and independent housing across the country, I’m all too aware of the common belief that as you age you have less to give. Apparently, those who are older have less purpose and therefore less value, which informs how society – and even Christians – view the older generation. It can also shape the way older people are treated in their local church.
I frequently lead sessions in churches on how we could better care for our seniors. Almost without fail, an older person will contact me at the end and describe how they were encouraged to leave a position due to their age.
Yes, there are some things you can do as a youngster that are not as easy or possible as you get older. But that’s only half of the picture. The Bible is one of the most inclusive books ever written. God gives incredibly important roles to old and young alike. Abraham and his wife Sarah started a nation although they “came of age” (Genesis 18:11). The scriptures tell us that Moses was 120 years old when he died, but his eye was not tarnished and his vigor did not weaken (Deuteronomy 34: 7). John was 90 when he wrote Revelation. These were not people whom God considered to be “past” with a purpose, but people whom God regarded as key to his plans. And we know that God never changes.
The elderly rely on the younger generations, but it is not a one-way street. Young people benefit from the wisdom and experience of the elderly, which I have noted many times, even during the pandemic. During the angst of the pandemic, our residents got closer to their caregivers and loved ones and brought peace. This peace comes from having gone through crises before. Many have lost spouses and loved ones and have provided comfort and understanding in this time of grief and loss.
We also see it in the spiritual wisdom that the elderly bring. I have seen older ladies comfort caregivers in the tragedy of miscarriage and accompany the shocking and painful diagnosis of a loved one. They don’t rush with their own experience or solution when they share a trial or grief, they listen and comfort. It is the beautiful fruit of maturity and experience. The spiritual maturity that comes with the years is something the Bible holds in great esteem. To have walked with the Lord and grown to know Him during this time is the gift of years. Job 12:12 says, “Wisdom is in old people, and understanding lasts for days. “
It is this understanding of the mutual benefits that may exist between older and younger generations, as described in the Bible and confirmed by our experience, that has guided our vision for the national renewal program. It kicks off with the celebration of the opening of Middlefields House in Wiltshire in October. Organized in households of twelve, residents will live as a family and have the opportunity to contribute to life at home. The positive aspects of old age will be present, encouraged and celebrated alongside the best care and active emotional and spiritual support.
The house is designed to facilitate residents’ contribution to the intergenerational community and discipleship training with a cafe, hair and beauty salon, and children’s play area that will all be open to the public, as well as bedrooms that can fit. be praised by local churches and community groups. Rediscovering the value of being older requires an understanding of aging and increased interaction between older and younger people.
As Christians, we are often guilty of not valuing and probing the depths of the older saints around us. We don’t appeal to their wisdom enough or rely enough on their prayer and maybe if we did more, our attitudes towards aging would start to change, we would become less fearful, and we would value older people more.
Living a fulfilling life has no expiration date and getting old is nothing to worry about. Intergenerational community, discipleship and meaningful relationships are an essential part of countering the increased fear of aging. Not because the old need the young, but because we all need each other. The effects of aging may be the result of the breaking up of the world, but the new creation we were created for will be intergenerational.
Stephen Hammersley is CEO of Pilgrims’ Friend Society, a Christian charity that helps older people live full lives later in their retirement homes and independent housing programs in England and Scotland. The charity also works alongside churches, inspiring and equipping them to work in the community with the elderly. To find out more go to https://www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk/ or follow them on social networks @ FS pilgrims