Guest Column

Edward Donnelly Edward Donnelly pastored Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, before his retirement in 2011. He serves as Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, and
01 March, 2004 4 min read

The challenge of old age


recent birthday has spurred me to think about growing old! Not only are policemen getting younger, but people are living longer — ten years more on average than a generation ago.

The number of over-80s in the United Kingdom is growing by ten thousand a year. Old age — with its problems and opportunities — is presenting an unavoidable challenge.

Problems and pressures

At a time when they prefer stability, older people face drastic changes — retirement, moving home, bereavement. They may have to cope with illness or loss of mobility.

Loneliness becomes a problem as contemporaries pass away. Aware that their life on earth is nearly over, many are afraid of dying.

Half of the elderly are trying to make ends meet on less than half the average wage. We should not be sentimental about aging, but face it with the realism of Ecclesiastes 12.

Economic pressures, together with the breakdown of marriage and the family, are moving us towards a society in which the young and able-bodied are occupied with their own lives, and older people are left without relatives to care for them.

The welfare state has nurtured a ‘leave it to others’ mentality — the assumption that government provides all that old people need.

Disrespect for human life, evidenced in the murder of the unborn, will inevitably affect those at the other end of life, especially as they consume an ever-increasing proportion of medical resources. Paradoxically, abortion will bear a child called euthanasia.

Perhaps the most intimidating pressure upon the elderly is the widespread worship of youth. Our culture glorifies the young, strong and beautiful. Vast sums are devoted to staving off signs of aging, because being old is the unforgivable sin.

The question, ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?’ is beginning to be answered in the negative.

Challenge to the family

God forbids the devaluation of the elderly. They are to be respected: ‘You shall stand up before the grey head and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God’ (Leviticus 19:32).

We are to seek their advice — ‘Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old’ (Proverbs 23:22). The elderly are not a separate species, but our neighbours who happen to be old and whom we are to love as ourselves, sacrificially and perseveringly.

The main responsibility for looking after the elderly rests with younger relations, and such care is an element of true religion: ‘If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God…

‘But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for the members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Timothy 5:4,8).

This means more than financial support. Older people are to be recognised as part of the family, not pushed to one side. If living on their own, we should keep in touch — not just for their sakes, but for ours, as we enjoy their company and benefit from their wisdom.

There is, too, the promise of God’s blessing: ‘Honour your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’ (Ephesians 6:2-3).

Challenge to the church

We are often told that ‘young people are the hope of the church’. Nonsense. God is the hope of the church, and he is able to use any of his people in its up-building, no matter what their age.

The maturity and graciousness which often accompany old age are among the church’s most valuable assets. Those who have walked with God for many years have a wealth of practical and spiritual experience upon which younger Christians can draw. Any congregation that overlooks its elderly impoverishes itself.

Neither should we forget the needs of the old in the church’s teaching ministry. They need instruction on such subjects as facing death and coping with disability in a God-honouring way.

They should be reminded of the nearness of heaven, that they may rejoice in and prepare themselves for it. Every age group has its temptations, and the discerning pastor will try to meet the needs of all his people from the Bible.

In most congregations there are ‘retired’ men and women who have energy and skills — sometimes of a high order — available for the work of the kingdom. Are they being used or wasted?

Even the frail and housebound can be encouraged to devote themselves to the most valuable ministry of intercessory prayer. What a blessing that may prove! A church which takes trouble to enlist its older members for service will be giving them a sense of worth as well as reaping the benefits of their work.

Challenge to the elderly

Basic to human dignity is the willingness to accept responsibility for oneself and one’s own behaviour. Difficult as their circumstances sometimes are, the elderly have no right to be selfish or complaining.

They should not make unreasonable demands on their friends, nor act as if the world is meant to revolve around them. Like everyone else, they must struggle against sin and ask for daily grace to overcome it.

Old age can be happy and winsome or empty and sad — depending largely on the faith and grace of the individual. To the elderly, God has given precious promises and they are called to depend on these and to demonstrate their truth for his glory.

‘Even to your old age I am he, and to grey hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save’ (Isaiah 46:4).

‘They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him’ (Psalm 92:14-15).

Edward Donnelly pastored Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, before his retirement in 2011. He serves as Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, and
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