‘We’re all going the one way’. A standard answer when somebody complains about their advanced age and the down-side of growing old. It’s supposed to afford a few crumbs of consolation, assuring the aged that their situation is not unique, that the speaker will face the same problems, a polite way perhaps of asking ‘What are you moaning about?’ It doesn’t console, of course, especially if the speaker is so far back down the road of life that he is scarcely visible in the rear view mirror. What does he know?
Ageing is of course one of those subjects that most people would like to avoid altogether. It has too many bad vibes, too many things we would rather forget about. Unfortunately, it won’t go away, and as the years pass all too quickly it becomes harder to ignore, even for a relative youngster like the present author.
The fact is that we live in a culture that has little respect for age. To be old – or to be perceived to be old – leaves you on the sidelines of life, as far as most of society is concerned. The old, it seems, have little to contribute, are stuck in the past, are mystified by technology (not a monopoly of the old!), are slow (and usually driving the car in front), and generally clog up the highways of life. At the very least, they ought to stand aside and let everybody get on.
The problems of growing old have been highlighted by a recent report into care for the elderly in NHS hospitals by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). Although ‘heartened by the amount of good and excellent care’ it saw, the CQC also found that of 100 hospitals checked, more than half needed to do more to meet the needs of older patients, 20 failed to meet the essential standards of care for the elderly regarding either dignity or nutrition, and 2 fell below the legal minimum for care provision. The report paints a worrying picture.
Most people, especially those in pastoral ministry, will have encountered widely varying standards of care for the elderly in hospitals and nursing homes. Some are outstanding and do everything possible to look after older people, whilst there are others about which you think ‘I’d rather be shot than end up there’. No doubt a range of causes of deficiencies could be offered, many relating to lack of resources and shortage of staff, and all may, up to a point, be valid. Nevertheless, care for the elderly undoubtedly reflects society’s attitude to its older members. If you are considered to be a useless burden, consuming scarce resources that could be spent on younger, more productive people – watch out!
Christians, more than anyone else, should be standing against the attitudes which devalue the elderly. Among the people of God, those who are older have always been held in high esteem as sources of godly wisdom. Those who have long experience of God’s Word and God’s ways should have much to teach others, and those younger in the faith should be ready to listen. The church owes much to the prayers of its older members – those who are likely to say ‘All I can do is pray’. Those are the people we need urgently, and they should be respected and indeed honoured. It doesn’t mean they are always right or that their advice should always be followed, but they should always be heard.
Ageing is a token of the fallenness of the world, and should not be foolishly glamorised (in response to society’s failings). Someone has said that growing old is not for wimps. The physical and mental decline that can come with advanced years can be very challenging, to the sufferer and to carers alike. It is not easy, and we should not pretend that it is. Nevertheless God’s grace extends right to the end of life and will always prove sufficient (Psalm 92:12). In its attitude to and care for its older members, the church should, as always, be profoundly counter-cultural.