Recent controversies about the closure of residential homes for the elderly by several Health Boards in Northern Ireland have highlighted once again some of the problems of growing old. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the political and economic arguments, it is clear that when cuts have to be made, the elderly are frequently seen as an easy target. Although a ‘U turn’ regarding closures has been executed, for the time being, we have to wonder where the private sector would have absorbed all those forced to vacate homes in which many of them were very happy.

There is no doubt that increasing age brings increasing problems as faculties begin to fail and the practicalities of care become more complicated. Resources are becoming much scarcer and the burden on family carers correspondingly heavier. In some cases the help available is good, but it depends where you live and in many situations there is little support when the pressure is on. Too often the authorities seem content to ‘tick the boxes’ that fulfil their minimum responsibility and after that – you’re on your own. In almost thirty years of pastoral ministry I don’t recall anyone who said, ‘I’m really glad I’m old.’ I don’t expect that will change.

We have to recognise that we are living in a society where anything that is old is regarded as useless and redundant, and those who are in the ‘older’ category soon notice that. However they think about themselves, the world around them often treats them as almost invisible, as a hindrance to progress, as those whose contribution to society is negligible. The retiring Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, in his final speech in the House of Lords, stated that too many older people are being ‘tolerated’ rather than ‘valued’. He was opening a debate on how elderly people can be viewed as ‘participants’ in society rather than ‘passengers’.

The Christian perspective on older people should be profoundly different. The biblical worldview is one in which older people are honoured as sources of wisdom and godly example. ‘God has placed older believers as a lighthouse for those of us who live around them,’ wrote Gregory of Nyssa, an important 4th century theologian. In older Christians we have living examples of what it is to walk with God through the whole range of life’s experiences, proving the truth of his promises of care, direction and protection. We are not to idealise older believers – there are many biblical examples of grave sins committed in later life – but they can and do offer wisdom (for those who will listen) and patterns of godly living that we can imitate. By God’s grace the sins to which older people tend to be more prone can be overcome and the fruit of the Spirit manifested in greater measure.

In many of our congregations we are blessed with some fine ‘lighthouses’ whose prayers have maintained the witness in discouraging times and have supported it in times of advance, and whose example we are to profit from. It is sad when these stalwarts feel sidelined and redundant. Older believers must know that they are valued and their needs must be taken into account. The old are not to hold a congregation hostage to their preferences, any more than the young are, but their contribution must be valued.

We also need to beware of dividing congregations into ever smaller groups according to age, with the result that nobody has to relate to anyone a little older or younger who might think in a different way or have different needs. What we should seek is as much integration as possible among different ages and backgrounds so that all benefit from the wisdom and insights of all. That will require a degree of grace and forbearance from all members of a congregation: I may know my way is absolutely the best, but I am not to demand it on every occasion. Another good opportunity for the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit!

We owe a great deal to faithful older Christians. May our gracious God continue to raise up ‘lighthouses’ for our congregations for many years to come.