2. Grace full ageing affirms with compassion the Frailty of the Elderly

Advertisers make millions of dollars selling products that stave off ageing. Yet if we live long enough, we may lose our beauty, brawn, bravado and eventually bodily functions. Understandably, we all fight the ageing process with whatever resources we possess for as long as we can.

Although our western culture tries to hide ageing behind wrinkle creams and Botox treatments, the Bible does not gloss over the plight of the aged. The stories speak of decreased health, declining strength, loss of vision and even memory loss. Older adults simply cannot do all the activities of life with the same former vigor and independence. Within the biblical world even the wise and wealthy succumbed to the frailty of aging. Such a few were Moses, Jacob, and even David - the man who killed lions and Philistine giants.

Here are a few of the places where the frailty of the elderly are noted, some even with a slight sense of humor and others with due sobriety and respect.

An otherwise unknown senior emerged briefly in the biblical story of the ageing King David. This stranger’s words catch our attention. He appears in the last recorded scene that we have of the great king David, now a frail man, confined to a bed, unable to keep warm. After the failed revolt of Absalom and his subsequent tragic death, the now elderly David had to regain control of the country and the monarchy.  People fled their homes and farms in fear of an unstable government, Although many leaders courageously surrounded the frail David and vowed their support, he specifically asked for the support of this otherwise unknown man, Barzillai.

However, Barzillai was himself elderly and frail. He thus respectfully declined the king’s request to serve as his advisor, citing his age and health as reasons. His description of ageing is worth noting.

I am now eighty years old…Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of men and women singing?” (2 Samuel 19: 34-35).

Just a few years later, David’s own son, Solomon, who also was now ageing urged his readers to remember their Creator in Ecclesiastes:12:

  • “The years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’ ’’
  • Eyesight deteriorates (“the sun and moon grow dark”);
  • Legs begin to fail and stoop (“the keepers of the house tremble and the strong men stoop”);
  • Teeth fall out (“grinders cease because they are few”;
  • Sleeplessness (“people rise at the sound of birds”);
  • Fear of falling and being robbedl);
  • The elderly limp along alone.

Absolutely no face lifting here and no attempt to sell products that postpone the inevitable. The morbid end is death, accompanied by mourners. In As You Like It, Shakespeare paraphrased Ecclesiastes with the words, “the last scene of all is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything.” Elsewhere, biblical passages note other physiological impacts of aging: failing eyesight (Genesis 27:1; Genesis 48:10; 1 Samuel 4:15); inability to stay warm (1 Kings 1:1-2); risks of falling and problems with weight (1 Samuel 4:18).

Moses died at the age of 120 (remarkable even in that era when Egyptian life rarely reached seventy) and the record notes, “…his eyesight was clear and he was as strong as ever.” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Caleb declared, “Today I am eighty five years old. I am as strong now as I was when Moses sent me on that journey.” Furthermore, Caleb wanted to claim some of the land from the enemies and participate in God’s plan for the people. He had no intentions of retiring (Joshua 14:10-12).

In fact, the Scriptures did not view death as a so-called “natural process.” The journey of physical decay and death began not at the age of sixty, but in the Garden of Eden, where Adam rebelled. God told him, “In the day you eat the fruit, you shall die.”

Although Adam actually lived physically for many more years, his spiritual death-separation from God came instantly. His physical body began the slow cortege to the grave. In essence, maturing and learning is intrinsic to ourbeing human. But death was not part of God’s original plan. Jesus grew in stature and favor with others- a normal facet of human life. The enemy of death and decay was not part of the original human plan. His death was voluntary and for our spiritual benefit and transformation. Paul declares, “…this mortal must put on immortal” in order to become what God intended (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).

Lest we conclude that frailty awaits all elders, we add the examples of hope which are also included in the biblical narrative. For example, Caleb wanted to conquer a mountain, even at eighty five, declaring, “ I am still as strong today as I was when Moses sent me out…I am just as vigorous” (Joshua 14:10-11). The Apostle John lived to be about ninety, and wrote the final book of the Bible while in exile.

Several years ago, the seminary where I worked decided to award a well-deserved honorary doctoral degree to an elderly pastor well into his eighties. He had served both globally and locally. Now invested in the lives of emerging pastors, we prepared to confer the degree on him. He sat ready to receive the award. However, before we could actually finish the ceremony, he went quickly into cardiac arrest and into the presence of the Lord. Although we stood there in shock, we later affirmed, “He was strong to his last breath.”

Summary and Practical Application

Decreased ability actually begins sooner than we might think. Athleticism, for example, decreases even in our thirties. “I’m not getting any younger” is a truism for all age groups and cultures. The Psalmist urges all people to count our days, even in our youth (Psalm 19). While our culture counts birth years, the Psalmist compels us to count each day.

Older adults were once younger pursuing life with all its dreams and effort, likely oblivious to the process of ageing that had already begun.

During my daily visits at our care facility, I see photos on the bedroom walls of young attractive women and strong virile men, only to turn to and see the resident who now sits before me in a wheelchair- seemingly two very different people. Ageing is a universal human event.

However, senior adults need not succumb to physical aging without a fight. Proverbs urges all age groups to, “…shun evil, this will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (Proverbs 3:8). Good diet, exercise, strict limits on alcohol use -if any at all- and other such healthy habits are a few examples of the active processes that contribute to longer and healthier life.

Older women in the early church were admonished to avoid too much wine lest they be disqualified from teaching younger women. Older men were also admonished to be temperate, thus avoiding unhealthy addictions (Titus 2:1-3). Older adults can regularly participate in even simple physical movement that enhances health. However, ageing does not hinder, even in the slightest, the ongoing transformative power of the Gospel so that we might, “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world…” ( 2 Peter 1:4).

Questions and Reflection:

  • This section has candidly talked about the physical decline associated with the aging process? How do you feel as you read these paragraphs?
  • What practical steps are you taking to “slow down” the aging process?