Valuing life’s veterans
If I were to ask who were the most neglected people in British society, I wonder what your answer would be? In fact, it is the elderly who are often overlooked and pushed to the margins of society.
Although many senior citizens are physically active, psychologically alert and enjoy happy lives, a large number struggle with loneliness, ill health and neglect.
We are becoming a society that prefers not to bother with the elderly. However, it is not that long ago that they were honoured and respected. Why has this devaluation of the aged happened and what should we do about it?
First, in a fast-changing culture, elderly people are perceived to have little value. In the stable societies that dominated the past, they were extraordinarily useful. The older men would have advised on such things as farming and home maintenance, while older women would have shared their experience of child-rearing, cooking and managing families.
It made sense to listen to your grandparents; they were a rich store of wisdom. But now, in an age when products become obsolete before you have read the manual, the hard-earned life skills of the elderly seem to have only curiosity value.
Second, in a busy world, the elderly are demanding. Keeping in touch with them requires more than a tweet or a text; they remain part of a culture that expects a conversation to last longer than a few quick sentences. In every area, we must slow down to their pace.
Third, elderly people are an uncomfortable reminder of what we will become. Our culture is obsessed with looks, youth and fitness and we do not like being reminded that one day we will have none of these things.
To deal with the elderly is to be reminded of our own mortality. We all want to live a long time but, with an utter lack of logic, we don’t want to be elderly. This neglect of the elderly is a shame and a scandal. How individuals and societies treat the weak, sick and aged is the test of what they really are.
Running through the Bible are instructions about respecting the family structure and looking after those at the margins of society. Leviticus 19:32 says, ‘Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly’. And, in 1 Timothy 5:1, Paul says, ‘Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father’. The elderly are to be treated with dignity and respect.
There are other strong arguments for looking after those who are life’s veterans. The elderly today are those who built the world we live in.
As individuals, they may have taught or cared for us. As a generation, they suffered to ensure that our society still has a large measure of freedom and prosperity. To ignore the elderly is to be guilty of ingratitude.
Grace is a specifically Christian reason. We are to be kind to those advanced in years, simply because they need our care. We are to look after them and listen to them, not because we get anything out of doing so, but because grace is the standard we live by. Those who have received grace should also display grace.
The most important things in life are relationships and the elderly are often wiser in their understanding of human beings than those who are decades younger. Their friendships were not in cyberspace, but in reality.
I suggest that we need to give the elderly the following:
Attention. You may say, ‘I never meet any elderly people’. The response is, ‘Have you tried?’ Try to find a situation in which you can get involved with elderly people.
Honour. The elderly should be listened to and honoured, not just as a matter of protocol but out of genuine respect. In a throwaway society, we need to reassure the elderly that they are not disposable.
Time. We should be ready to sit down with the elderly, listen and talk to them. It can indeed take time to bridge the gap between generations, but their many years surely deserve a few hours from us.
Consideration. The elderly are often baffled and frustrated about modern living. Although we may have to work at not being patronising, we need to get alongside them and ask how we can help. How would you manage if you couldn’t drive, found lifting almost impossible or had impaired hearing?
Assistance. Remembering that some elderly people are very independent; some need transport; almost all will welcome a visit; and many will sleep easier knowing that a friend is just a phone call away.
They may feel — not without justification — that they are vulnerable to every criminal in town. We can be advocates for them. We can accompany them to the garage, stand behind them as they negotiate costs with the plumber and help them phone the council. Defending the defenceless is supremely Christian.
Not all elderly people are frail, vulnerable and neglected; and neither are all white-haired, wrinkled senior citizens saintly and sweet-tempered. Age can bring with it sourness and cynicism. It is grace, not years, that sanctifies.
Working with the elderly can require patience, tact and persistence. Nevertheless, we need to care for them. We may be helped here by considering Jesus’ great command to ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’.