Mr. Donald L. Norbie, of Greeley, CO, the author of several books and numerous articles, serves the Lord in a Bible teaching, shepherding, and evangelistic ministry.
So how do you view the prospect of getting older? Is it seen as a losing proposition or a period of life with real advantages?
The World View
How does the world view the aging person? And here we shall consider the American viewpoint.
Interesting studies have been made by sociologists masquerading as elderly people in their 80’s. (Usually the elderly are divided into the young-old, 55-75, and the old-old, 75 and older.)
They soon discovered that an old person did not merit the interest or attention that a younger person would get. At times they had to be quite assertive to get service. They were often ignored and treated almost like non-persons or in a patronizing way. Perhaps some choose to ignore an older person, not wishing to face their own mortality. The elderly, the weak and the dying remind us that we too must die. Our culture is one that glorifies vigorous youth, not old age.
The world often communicates several perspectives to the old. First, since your prime is past you have less value as a person. Worth may be linked to good health and productivity.
Secondly, since one is retired or able to work less, he is viewed as worthless, cluttering up the scene. A person’s work often determines his value in society. We live in a pragmatic world. What good are you if you cannot work?
Thirdly, there may even be hidden resentment, carefully guarded to be sure, of the retired person. He has lived his life and had his chance. It would be simpler if he were off the scene. Then his children could enjoy his estate. Besides, social security payments are a burden for the rest of society.
While few would brazenly voice such sentiments they may be more common than we like to admit.
The Self View
How does the older person perceive himself? Here it is hard not to feel the pressure of the society around you. Disparaging remarks and the indifference of people begin to errode one’s self-esteem.
Thus one may first begin to know a decreasing self-image. He seems to be losing everything. More of his time is spent attending funerals. Relatives and old friends are leaving him, like autumn leaves losing their grip and spiraling lazily to the ground. One gets tired of looking into the dead, unseeing faces of those once loved and now gone. Death is very cruel.
Physical loss is sudden in some and gradual in others. One may joke about loss of hair, loss of hearing and loss of teeth. But it all adds up to loss. Where will is all end? Will one become utterly helpless or die suddenly?
And then there may be mental loss. There is the frustration of forgetting names, of losing one’s train of thought. Some stay alert into old age; other’s begin to drift. The fear of senility may lurk in the dark recesses of the mind.
Socially one may feel a sense of loss. One’s family may be too busy living life to show much interest. His circle of friends may begin to narrow and he feels left out, unwanted. It can be a lonely life. Ask the many who live in nursing homes.
Secondly, there is a decreasing sense of usefulness. Retirement may be mandatory when a person has many years of useful service left. A person’s work is very important to him. The aging process accelerates when one feels no longer useful. Life becomes meaningless. Fishing is a good hobby but a poor vocation!
This may be true even in religious work. A minister left his preaching in middle age and became a chiropractor. He said, “1 saw the handwriting on the wall. Churches want younger men as ministers.”
Thirdly, family may ignore him. Life is busy and full. Perhaps both husband and wife have employment.
Little time is left for elderly parents. Weeks and months may slip by with little contact, other than perhaps an occasional phone call. But the message conies through loud and clear: “You are not very important to us. We can live life without you.” It all adds up to loss for the older person.
Then as age creeps on fears may trouble him. Fears of being attacked and robbed haunt many who live alone. There may be a fear of falling and of serious injury. For some there is the fear of dying alone. All of this contributes to a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem.
How Does God View the Elderly?
According to Scripture long life and old age are to be desired, not dreaded. Long life is a reward for obeying God (Ex. 20:12).
The Scripture views every individual from conception on as being made in the image of God and having great worth. Those who have been deprived, such as the widows and orphans, know God’s special care and concern (Deut. 14:9; James 1:27). Individuals have worth not only because of their contribution to society but because of their humanity. Babies are valued with their limitations. Older people need that same sense of value. As Christians with God-instructed hearts we need to communicate worth to the elderly as well as to infants.
Churches also need to encourage a sense of usefulness. There is much that older, retired people can do. Many have trade skills which can be utilized in foreign missionary work and at home in camp and church building construction and repair. There are charitable works for the poor and infirm: cleaning a house, cooking a meal, mowing a lawn —the list is endless.
There is a wealth of spiritual and practical wisdom stored up with age. Old age was to be honored: “You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged…” (Lev. 19:32, NASB). “Elders were not respected” (Lam. 5:12) was the cry in Jerusalem’s day, a sign of moral decadence. Yes, old age was to be respected. “A gray head is a crown of glory” (Prov. 16:31).
In Israel and in the early churches older men led the people. Hence, they were called “elders.” The most experienced, the most wise, the most godly were to lead God’s people (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). And the older women were to teach the younger women (Titus 2:3, 4).
Far from being viewed as useless by God, spiritual older men and women are seen as immensely valuable to God’s people. Their wisdom, knowledge and experience should lead the churches. It is sad if godly, older men and women remove themselves from the flock where they have labored for years and isolate themselves in retirement communities. There is more to life than playing shuffle board.
A whole new ministry can come with retirement, a rich ministry of visitation, counselling and teaching. Do not squander the wealth of your experience in personal pleasure. Even when limited physically there nay be much that one can do to help the people of God.
Churches need to encourage family love and nearness. A tragedy of modern society is the way it fragments families. Older people can be a powerful influence in the lives of their grandchildren. They can teach and reinforce spiritual values. Moses reiterated the Law, urging the people to teach it, “so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:2).
Spiritual teaching was to pass on from generation to generation. Paul rejoiced at the faith passed on from Timothy’s grandmother and mother to himself (2 Tim. 1:5).
In an age which worships youth the churches need to reaffirm the value of age and experience. Rehoboam listened to young men and brought civil war upon his kingdom. Value the wisdom of age.
Older people need to be encouraged to utilize their gifts and experience to the full for God. They need to pray for a new vision of usefulness to God and His people. Ask God for the spirit of Caleb: “And now behold I am eighty-five years old today. I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me … Now then give me this hill country… (Joshua 14:10-12). Caleb was not ready to retire from serving God. May God give us a thousand Calebs.
For the elderly who may have their fears of the future, hear the word of the Lord:
Even to your old age I shall be the same,
And even to your graying years I shall bear you!
I have done it and I shall carry you;
And I shall bear you and I shall deliver you (Isaiah 46:4).