On my desk is a newly arrived analysis of a survey amongst readers of a national Christian magazine. It had been carried out for the charity I work for, Pilgrims’ Friend Society. Among other things, readers were asked what they feared most about old age when they reached it.
Responses were different for each age group, and they reinforced something I’ve noticed time and time again – that most people under the age of 55 have no concept of what it’s like to be old. They’ve no experience to model it against. Also, there’s the tendency we have to believe that everyone feels the same way that we do, so people under the age of 55 assume that older people have the same values and desires as they do. An example is the film about older people living in a retirement hotel in India, the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In it, almost every older character except one, a spinster played by the wonderful Maggie Smith, was intent on enjoying a sex life with the frequency and loucheness more typical of 20 and 30 year olds. Reflexive writing on the part of the scriptwriters, perhaps, but not an accurate observation of real life older people. This is not to say that sex disappears with age. As a Christian counsellor I teach that sex is a valuable part of God’s design for human beings, but after the age of say, 70, it tends to decline along with individuals’ energy levels.
Another example of this type of projection was an article written by a journalist who spent a few months living in a retirement complex in America, to write about the lives of the old folk living there. He thoroughly enjoyed himself. He loved the way they had time to spend chatting with him, and was particularly full of praise for the way they ‘partied’ and ‘knocking back the booze like there was no tomorrow.’ ‘These were tough old gals,’ he wrote admiringly. He was totally unaware that he was measuring them by his own values. I was struck by the lack of any reflection on their mellowness and maturity, or their experience or wisdom. Occasionally we come across someone who does know the difference. ‘What’s it like to be old?’ reflected a man in his 40s, answering one of our mini surveys at a national Christian event before answering, ‘How could I possibly know, when I’ve never been old myself?’ A wise answer, I thought, wondering afterwards if he was an old age psychiatrist.
Among older respondents in our national survey, certain themes predominated. Fears centred on finding oneself alone and isolated in old age; lacking Christian fellowship, suffering debilitating physical or mental infirmity, particularly dementia, not being useful any more (particularly men), and being a burden, especially to one’s family.
The first two fears are well founded. Isolation and loneliness is the scourge of old age in Britain today. It’s also the biggest challenge faced by older people. Older people tell us they feel they have become invisible in church. Three and a half million people over the age of 65 are now living on their own. Last Christmas, Age UK told about an 85 year old who spent Christmas day alone, listening over and over to the message on her answerphone just to hear a human voice. Within six months of launch, Silverline, the helpline for older people, had handled over 100,000 calls, and the number was growing. Feelings of loneliness are not only debilitating, they can be dangerous. Several studies show that the feeling of loneliness increases the risk of developing dementia by 47%. The statistical link is so strong that lead researcher Bob Watson at the centre for aging at Rush University, Chicago, wonders publically why the pharmaceutical sector doesn’t produce medication for it.
Famous evangelists John Stott, Billy Graham and Jeff Lucas have said that they were not prepared for old age. Their churches taught about death, but not about old age. But our churches also fail to teach about two important scriptural principles that, if adopted, would change our lives completely, and completely revise our view of old age.
The first is the myth of being independent, and by implication, of not being a burden. Galatians 6:2 tells us to ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ In his book, The Radical Disciple, John Stott wrote that we should be ‘burdensome towards one another’. Yet we so often hear older people say they do not want to be a burden. Sometimes the underlying reason is concern for the person who would carry the burden, say, a daughter struggling with work and raising a family, but often it is the misguided belief that we should be independent and self-sufficient. There is no such thing is an independent person. You would not be reading this article if it were not for a team of editors, designers and producers (not to mention me!) and if you are wearing spectacles, the optician and their manufacturer.
The second is misunderstanding of what it means to be useful. Being useful is very satisfying; it gives us a sense of achievement and position. But God’s idea of usefulness is often not the same as ours. Many older people have the highest degree of usefulness in God’s eyes, because they have more time for prayer and intercession. In the hands of Pilgrim Homes’ residents, the Prayer Calendar in the Pilgrims’ Magazine is a weapon of spiritual warfare as well as blessing, and woe betide us if it is published late! Significantly, in Ephesians 2:10 the Lord makes it clear that he has equipped us for our good works and has even planned them in advance.
The writer of Psalm 71:9 pleads, ‘Don’t abandon me when I am old!’ This cry is being heard more and more today amongst older people and Matthew 25:40 was never more relevant. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.