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Growing old

August 2019 | by Alan Thomas

A junior researcher recently sent me an email with a small typo. She referred to me as an ‘old aged psychiatrist’. I replied that I may not be as young as I was but I’m not aged yet! I explained that I think the current UK term for my NHS job ‘Old Age Psychiatrist’ is preferable to the earlier one ‘Psychogeriatrician’ (which sounds like a deranged doctor who works with older people, something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film) and to the American name ‘Geriatric Psychiatrist’ (I picture myself some years from now with a zimmer frame and hearing aid). I guess I was a little piqued at even accidentally being deemed aged.

Everyone is a little sensitive about growing old. Is this right? Is this Christian? Is our negative reaction conditioned by our society’s obsession with youthfulness? ‘Forty is the new Twenty’ we are told or is it now ‘Fifty is the new twenty’? I can’t keep up. But we are all agreed that being old is not a good thing.

Evolutionary theory wants us to believe ageing is natural and so is ‘good’. A dominant theory is that of the ‘disposable soma’. Our bodies (for we have no souls of course) peak for reproduction, so those selfish genes can propagate. Once we have reproduced then our bodies have served their purpose and can be discarded.

So evolution has not developed any processes to prevent ageing. We will pass over the evidence that ageing and decay begin well ahead of the end of our reproductive years and remind ourselves that the Bible presents a different view. Ageing is unnatural. It was not meant to be.

Dying every day

If I may misuse the apostle, we die every day. Ageing is dying. We are born into this world with the seeds of death in us. It was not so when Adam was created in the garden of Eden. He was created full of life and meant to live forever, never growing old, never wearing out, never decaying in his body. It was Adam’s sin which introduced death and ageing and so everyone since has been born to die.

We all now endure the indignities and humiliations of ageing. We blush with self-consciousness when we can’t read the menu in a restaurant without our glasses. We are frustrated when we can’t hear the conversation at dinner. We are irritated at the restrictions our arthritic pains place upon us. We are embarrassed when we realise we are repeating ourselves because we have forgotten what we said earlier. As we age we live with a multitude of such humiliations.

It is right that we are uncomfortable with ageing because it is an intrusion into God’s creation. Such embarrassments were not meant to be. We often cope with it with a little humour don’t we? That is how Solomon tackled it in Ecclesiastes. His ode to ageing in chapter 12 is laced with wry humour as he describes his teeth ceasing to function, his eyes fading and so on. But the Bible also has a positive take on old age.

The wisdom of old age

Whilst the Bible teaches us that ageing is an alien intrusion, and so we are rightly uncomfortable with it, it also gives us another perspective. A very positive one. With ageing comes experience and with experience comes wisdom. Older folk have been around the block before, some a few times!

For young children every corner brings something new and exciting, and they naturally seek guidance from their parents. As they grow older they may increasingly seek advice from their friends. Our culture strongly encourages them to do so. But are they the best guides? They may be great at solving tech problems with the phone (which they can also help the rest of us with!) but they lack the experience to solve the more fundamental problems of living.

How do I maintain credibility with my friends when my Dad won’t let me watch Game of Thrones? How do I explain that its nudity and sex is sin? Why does Mum not let me wear that dress? Or makeup? And who can I talk to when I’m angry with my parents?

Grandparents have often played a vital role here. They provide a valuable voice of experience from someone who is outside the immediate family with its tensions, someone to confide in who knows you but who is not there watching you all the time, a sounding board for your worries when your parents are too busy.

But the church family has many ‘grandparents’ doesn’t it? And the counsel of such older people is especially important in our society in which families are scattered around the country, often around the world. In our churches we should encourage our children from their earliest years to get to know adults of all ages, and especially the elderly.

When such relationships are formed naturally along the way then it becomes natural for our older church members to be a source of advice. But such relationships bring much more than advice for specific issues. They are enriching and mutually beneficial in and of themselves. They are part of healthy church life.

In his pastoral letters Paul uses family language for relationships in the church. Our societal approach, in which children associate largely with other children, is emotionally unhealthy, it makes unstable and distorted people. Growing up with relationships with people of all ages (brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandfathers and grandmothers and so on) makes for emotional maturity and self-assurance.

For it isn’t only children and teenagers who benefit from relationships with and the wisdom of the elderly. The trickier the problem the more important it is to seek advice, and often the best advice comes from the old. We can all learn from our older members, even church elders.

Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.