Sooner or later every married couple is going to be faced with either caring for aging parents or each other as they advance in age. The following is adapted from my book, The Art of Aging.
One of the necessary components of understanding the aging of others and ourselves is the demythologization of our cultural folklore about “old people”. Demythologizing is a fancy way of saying that we must investigate current assumptions about aging in our society and compare them with the facts. Furthermore, it means that we must adjust our individual and collective behavior to the facts.
Myth 1: Elderly people are nonproductive.
A common belief is that the elderly neither desire to nor are capable of contributing productively to society. Undoubtedly, this myth has several roots. At least two of these roots society has planted and harvested.
Society arbitrarily established an age for retirement when the population bulged with young people who put pressure on the job market. The extension of longevity for the masses was not yet perceived as a problem. The retirees began to be viewed as people past this “magic age” of productivity. Of course, many did become nonproductive. To be retired, early on, meant to be free not to work. Since productivity was measured in terms of economic contribution, elderly retirees thus became non-productive.
The establishment of a retirement age, followed by an expected unproductive, non-income period, contributed to the myth that elderly people are nonproductive.
The second root of this myth involves the standard by which we have measured older adults. In our fast-paced society, we measure older adults by the speed and vigor of youth. However, accuracy, depth of perception, reliability, and wisdom all represent valuable contributions to success. The older worker, while losing speed and vigor, brings the above qualities to the marketplace and contributes to the common goals of productivity.
A number of studies have verified that older workers are, in fact, perceptive, reliable, and wise. Furthermore, many dimensions to life exist beyond that of economic production. Frequently the elderly produce services that the young cannot because the economic concerns may be less for the elderly.
Myth 2: Travel, leisure and entertainment include the chief concerns for the elderly
Many believe that the elderly of the North anxiously await retirement so that they can move to Florida. Developers spend a lot of money advertising to persuade older Americans to accept this way of thinking.
However, Frank and Betty are typical of most retirees. At the age of 70, they work part-time jobs, serve in social organizations, and carry on an active church life in the community where they have lived for 40 years.
Mary has learned how to operate a computer in order to manage the business affairs for a local Christian social service. Like Mary, there are many other elderly people busy learning so that they can take on new challenges.
These folks do enjoy more leisure. They travel more frequently, both for pleasure and family reasons, but their lives are full of rich rewarding services for the King and the Kingdom.
Myth 3: The learning ability of older adults is severely diminished.
All of us can think of an example where this is true. But is it true because of age, or is it true because of a physiological problem with the individual? Researchers agree that, even though older adults learn less rapidly, they nonetheless learn effectively because they are able to utilize existing data as learning tools.
Myth 4: Older people do not have an interest in or a desire to be involved with people in other age groups
Society tends to group the elderly in accordance with the phases of the life cycle. Sunday school classes, social groups, and even prayer groups are broken down by age categories. We have a great need to make associations more age-integrated, as they once were during Bible times. At one time, grandparents, children, and grandchildren all lived under the same roof. With society departing from the “nuclear family model,” individuals frequently lack the experience of love from other generations. There is a growing consensus that intergenerational interaction is vital to well being. A practical experience in a pilot project with senior adults exploded this myth for me.
While developing a program for a large congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America, we invited a girls’ chorus from the local Christian high school to sing at the Christmas program. The chorus director suggested that her girls bring a sack lunch and join the senior adults for lunch. They agreed. They arranged the tables in a long “U” with the senior adults seated around the outside of the “U”. The girls spread out and sat on the inside of the “U”. Both the girls and the seniors talked for weeks about the joy of that fellowship. Senior adults need and desire intergenerational contacts. To believe otherwise is a myth.
Myth 5: Older adults are physically weak.
Of the frail elderly, those 85 and older, this myth approaches the truth. However, the vast majority of those 62 years of age and over appear to be in reasonably good health. They enjoy a vigor that is reflected in a plethora of activities from golf, to square dancing, to running volunteer organizations.
We also need to remember that physical strength is an individual matter. It directly results from health, exercise, diet, and mental attitude. While a gentle decline in intensity of strength that accompanies aging occurs, it certainly is a myth to attribute a general state of weakness to the older adult population.
Myth 6: Older adults are empty, uninteresting, and possess little worthwhile wisdom.
I taught a newly formed “Single Again” Sunday School class which had no age parameters. Somewhat to my surprise, a 71 year-old widow showed up in the class. I watched with great interest what response her presence would elicit from the mid-life divorcees, and I was pleasantly surprised. Apparently, these folks had not yet learned this cultural myth. We treated our senior member with respect and still welcomed her as “one with us”.
Her initial response reflected that she might have believed this myth. During an icebreaker exercise in which she had to question her partner and then introduce this person with the information she had gained, she commented, “Well, I can’t tell you a lot about her. I talked too much so she would know a lot about me. I figured she needed to know a lot so she could find something interesting to say.”
As you read through these myths, it should become clear that the Christian, of all people, should not fall prey to these myths and this one in particular. The Christian has a responsibility to view our aging society in a manner that values each individual person. We must accept and appreciate individual differences. Each of these myths may be true of individuals, but they are myths when applied to the older population as a whole. Love, acceptance, and justice should serve as the hallmarks of the church. As believers in the Scriptures, Christians cannot allow these myths to shape the way they view their own aging or the aging of others. Therefore, our theology must be ageless in its application except in those areas where God speaks an age-endowed word.
Myth 7: It is inevitable that seniors will lose muscle and bone.
This statement is a myth. All people at any ages can lose muscle (tone) strength and bone density. This is why it is recommended that women, in particular, have a bone density scan and establish a baseline of normal. By the same token, resistance exercise with weights or other tools can maintain muscle strength and bone density and actually reverse loses. Exercise can provide prolonged muscle and bone constancy into old age.
Remember, Paul said that bodily exercise profits little, but it does profit. In actuality, proper exercise, while not of great profit in and of itself, does contribute to our maintenance of His temple and to our ability to be spiritually active—participate in church activities, mission projects and other ministries, which require physical stamina.
Myth 8: People over 90 are expensive to maintain.
The US Census Bureau provides us with some interesting snap shots of the graying of America. The Bureau estimates that some 66,000 people in America have celebrated their 100th birthday. That is about double the number recorded in 1990 and fifteen times the number in 1950. If this trend persists, and there is little reason to think that it will not, there will be approximately 850,000 centenarians by 2050.
However, according to research done by the New England Centenarian Study, the cost of a hospital stay for those approaching the centenarian mark averaged $2101 less than those in their seventies. In addition, in the last twenty years the percentage of elderly living in nursing homes has declined from 6.3% to 5.2%. Another factor dispelling this cost rumor is that of those 65-74, 89% report no disabilities.
Unfortunately, even many in the medical community have not come to an appreciation this reality. I recently became the new patient of a doctor. When he took my medical history I gave him negative answers regarding all ailments on his intake questionnaire and reported that I took no medications (other than Advil or Tylenol). His response was, “None! You are a blessed man.” He seemed to be genuinely surprised that at 64 I was not experiencing some debilitating physical problem.
Myth 9: Diet and vitamins determine healthy aging.
If you are coinsurer of early morning television infomercials or the same on Saturday morning radio, you may become convinced that diet and vitamins will guarantee longevity. However, others seem to think that genetics determine how long one will live. Both are myths! Genetics certainly play a role as most studies indicate. Diet and vitamins play a role. However, far more important is life-style. A well-balance diet, a good multi vitamin, and reasonable exercise program coupled with a positive mental attitude are all necessary contributors to an extended and healthy life span. This life-style must be in the context of limited alcohol intake and the absence of tobacco as well as drug abuse in order to flourish.
The Christian senior who has learned to walk in the Spirit will contribute a great deal to his positive aging process through enhancing his/her positive mental attitude. While this article is not focused upon spiritual dynamics, it seems appropriate to point out a few simple facts. First, sinful attitudes like unforgiveness, desire for revenge, and explosive anger (see Ephesians 4:31) are all detrimental to physical health and take a toll on one’s body. Secondly, seeing the struggles of living in a bent world as constant challenges to the “good life” rather than opportunities to serve God and reflect His glory saps one’s energy and tends to keep us in a state of depression (a mental attitude of discouragement which is a drain upon our physical bodies). Thirdly, failure to rest upon the promises of God engenders anxiety that is both sinful and physically harmful.
My spiritual father has been such a wonderful example to me. As I write, he is in the process of dying. He is 75 and will not reach the current average age in America of 76. However, it is the result of a rare disease. In his case diet, vitamins or life-style have nothing to do with his early death. If it were not for this disease, or some other possible one, he would have lived a longer life. He did manage his diet well. He did take vitamins. And, his life-style, including his walk in the Spirit, was exemplary. My son and I went to see him a few weeks ago. He was very tired as he lay in a Hospice House bed, yet he was the ever-optimistic Jim resting in the Lord and rejoicing in God’s goodness. His life has been full of joy, but certainly not without struggles.
Myth 10: Old people are not open to evangelism.
Statistics indicate that the majority of people become Christians before the age of twenty (see www. Barna.org/research/evangelism). If you have attempted to witness to elder people, as I have, you have probably found that they are closed minded about religion. However, I would submit to you that evangelizing older adults is a bit like selling an up-scale car to a middle class, conservative working man. Simply approaching him and explaining that you are concerned about his comfort and therefore you would like him to consider buying this luxury car will not gain a positive response. If, however, you spend time getting to know him and serving him—say, taking him to doctor appointments after surgery in your luxury car—you may well find that he will express an interest in having a similar car. In short, evangelism with older people can be quite effective when it is accomplished through friendship and service.
Allow me to dispel this myth by several illustrations that are true-life experiences. First, there is my uncle Charles and aunt Ida. My family on my father’s side gathered every Thanksgiving and Christmas. One of my father’s brothers and his wife were believers. However, they were from a very legalistic church. They were cordial and they desired to be a witness to the rest of the family. Nonetheless, their unwillingness to play cards with the family and enjoy other simple entertainment isolated them and negated their witness. My wife and I, juniors by 35-45 years to all of them, made it a point to participate. We seldom attempted to have a verbal witness for years unless asked a question that presented an opportunity to do so. But, each Christmas we bought them a book that we thought would be of interest and written by someone with whose name they could identify (like Charles Colson). Slowly over the years my uncle began to initiate conversations that had religious content. Somewhere around the age of eighty he came to know the Lord. At age eighty-seven my aunt had a stroke and could not speak. My wife was flying to Pennsylvania to speak at a women’s conference and went to see her. She asked the family for some time alone with my aunt. She then proceeded to sit on the edge of her bed and said, “Aunt Ida, you are about to die. Every time we have attempted to talk with you about the Lord Jesus you shut us out. Don’t do that now. I am going to explain how you can have eternal life.” After she walked her through the gospel, she told her that if she would like to confess her sin and trust Jesus Christ to save her to squeeze her hands. My aunt Ida did so. Pam then asked her to talk with the Lord in her mind (she could no longer speak) as she led her in a sinner’s prayer. Two weeks later she died. After I buried her, my uncle hugged me and said, “Sonny, I don’t know what Pam said to Aunt Ida, but she has been a different person these last two weeks”.
When I accepted the call to a new church, an elder said to me, “You have a job here and it is to win my mother-in-law to Christ.” To keep this story short, let me simply say that I went by their home twice a week. One time, usually on Monday or Tuesday, Ginny (not her real name) and I would discuss the sermon for about twenty to thirty minutes. She was a brilliant woman and would ask very insightful questions. It was a fascinating experience. The second time I would visit I would encourage her to tell me about her very interesting life. After six or seven months, at age 93, this woman told her daughter one Saturday morning, “Honey, I understand and I am ready to trust the Lord”. Her daughter had the pleasure of leading her to Christ and I had the joy of baptizing her and seeing her join the church. Nine or ten months later it was my honor to preside over her funeral.
There was a seventy-year old man who attended our church sporadically the first three months of my tenure. His thirty-five year old daughter died suddenly. My wife and I went to the funeral. For the next several months I went by his home at least weekly. He would greet me and we would sit down at the dining room table. I would hold his hand while he wept. Sometimes he briefly expressed his grief. After 45 minutes to an hour I would pray with him and leave. Over the next nine months we processed his loss through Bible study. He came to appreciate God’s sovereign rule and later he gave a credible expression of faith and indicated a desire to join the church. That was ten years ago. He is now eighty and serving in a variety of ways in the church. His testimony has grown clearer as he has grown in his understanding.
I know a young man whose friend went to pastor a church in his home the town. He told his friend that he believed that the Lord was sending him there to reach his parents. They had not been church members or attended church for more than 25 years. The new pastor and his wife worked at building a relationship with these dear people and they began to attend the church with growing regularly during his tenure. Shortly after this pastor was called to another church, they underwent two extended medical recuperation periods. The church rallied to love them and serve them. Four years after his departure, this older couple came forward with a credible profession of faith and joined the church. In addition, other members of this young family have also become involved with this church.
This past week our youth choir did their annual tour. Because their stop at one church in the Chicago area came on an evening that the church could not rally a crowd, the church hosted the youth and arranged for them to do a concert at a nursing home. After the concert the youth and the adult advisors mingled with the residents. One member sat down with an 85 year man. She inquired about his church experience in life. Realizing he had even little cultural knowledge of the gospel, she began with the basics. Several times in the conversation he said, “But I am 85 years old!” She quoted the Scripture, “Today is the day of salvation.” At that point he responded to the gospel. The following day the pastor of the sponsoring church followed up to enfold him into the ministry of the church. He just needed someone to love him enough to patiently walk him through the gospel.
“Elderly people will not respond to evangelism” is a myth. They will respond to evangelism and the gospel presentation when it is occurs in a context of relationship. Relationships provide the opportunity to respect, to love and to serve. When we love, respect and serve senior citizens, the Holy Spirit develops a vulnerability in them that creates an opportunity for the Gospel through which they are convicted of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. There are many senior citizens languishing in nursing homes and senior residences. An aggressive program of building relationships through love, respect and service will uncover