GRACE-FULL AGING

“Old age was not a defeat, but a victory; not a punishment but a privilege.”  Abraham Heschel. The Insecurity of Freedom (New York, 1972) pp. 71-72.

“Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:32).

While I visited a widow in our congregation, she listed for me all the risks of getting old: deteriorating health (or, “my organ recital” as she whimsically called it), financial restraints, loss of loved ones and loneliness. Having experienced it all, she sighed, “You have to be brave to get old.

Ever since that frank visit over twenty five years ago and through countless subsequent conversations, I have listened to many seniors who travel this road called ageing. For some, the road calls for courage, while others deftly navigate their road with joy and fulfillment. In fact, now I too have begun to travel the same road and experience the early symptoms of ageing.  It is no longer them but me.

As I listen to seniors share their reflections on life, I have learned an important lesson. The age of seniors is not as important as much as their attitude toward the ageing process. It is not the health or wealth, but a positive outlook which enable seniors to live well. I see long term care residents who, despite their limitations, have a confidence and joy about life that astounds both family and friends.

Life was once simple and binary. You were either healthy and alive or seriously ill and dying. Our longer lifespans bring the need to rethink what it means to age well or "grace-fully."

In Canada the proportion of seniors within the general population has steadily increased such that this age group now exceeds that of children aged fourteen and younger. This represents over fifteen percent of the population. The world has more elderly than ever before in history and it is necessary to discern what grace-full aging entails.

This essay explores several vital questions. First, how does the Bible view the process of ageing? It may seem unusual to explore the abstract topic of “a biblical theology of ageing”. However, there are almost 300 references to older adults in the Bible; 250 in the Hebrew Bible and another 50 in the New Testament.

Seniors are important in the Bible and therefore to God.[1] Although this essay makes no claim to provide an exhaustive study of all such passages, it offers an initial exploration of recurring themes drawn from selected biblical passages.

Secondly, this essay asks, “What enduring and vital roles do older adults have in the life of God’s people?" Practically, what does it mean to “age grace-fully?”

As a chaplain in a senior adult community and also active in a local church, I ask the question,  “How do we practically ensure the ongoing nurture of senior adults in order that they can finish the journey of life well? How can we help seniors in their journey?"

In order to age grace-fully, we must all attend to our “gray matters.”

“Grace-full ageing” is that spiritual process, under-girded by God’s grace and accompanied by supportive family and friends, wherein each person travels their own ageing journey with confidence and support. This essay seeks to address this practical theology which intersects where theology meets daily life through what we call “praxis”, an integrative approach that connects practical and current research with the foundational truths of Scripture.

We will explore eight themes to explain what we mean by grace-full ageing. Each theme includes several key passages, some practical comments, and one or two questions for reflection and discussion.

  1. Grace-full ageing describes seniors with both candor and respect - Elderly and Elders

Let’s begin with the sensitive question: what do we call this age group?

Our western culture has coined many creative terms to describe the older adult. We are dubbed “boomers”, “Just Older Youth (J.O.Y. groups), senior adults, retirees and a host of other terms. What biblical words both affirm the dignity of this age group and yet remain honest about the realities of ageing?

In some passages, the biblical story was brutally candid. After Joshua and the people had taken much of the land, God spoke pointedly to him one day, “You… Are… Old.” (Joshua 13:1). The once charismatic leader who replaced the ageing Moses, was now himself aged. No sugar coating here - just plain truth.

Elsewhere the psalmist simply described seniors as, “old and grey.” (Psalm 71:18). The word translated “old” actually comes from the Hebrew word “Zaqen”, meaning literally “bearded”. The Scriptures also added that older people have grey hair (1Samuel 12;2 and Proverbs 20:29. Zechariah observed them, “leaning upon their canes”.  However for a few selected elderly, the writers add, “…old and full of years” (Genesis 25:8).

And yet, the same Hebrew word translated “old” also describes the role of the elderly. They are “elders”- men and women with wisdom essential to the people of God. This dual use of the word reminds us that wisdom is often camouflaged behind the wrinkles of the elderly. In ancient times, elders often took seats at the city gate to offer wisdom. Therein lay the paradox of aging. It brings both limitations and also new opportunities, both insights and losses- the aged are both elderly and elders. “Elderly” describes our age; “elder” describes our potential wisdom.

When does “ageing” begin? Western society assumes that aging begins somewhere around fifty… or sixty…? Generally, the process begins when we first notice new body ache. We cannot run across the street like we once did. We come home from work more exhausted than in earlier months. Most of us equate ageing with the first gray hair that we spot in the mirror. Frankly, I continue to comb my ever decreasing strands of hair across my ever expanding barren baldness in an effort to conceal my age.

Economically, culture often equates ageing with retirement somewhere after sixty five. Physiologically, however we actually begin ageing in our twenties when our physical strength and mental acuity begin the long slow march toward maturity.

When did the senior years begin in the Hebrew culture? Sixty years seems to have provided a benchmark for describing the elderly. This is a period when men apparently ceased work. Priests laid aside their robes even earlier at fifty (Leviticus 27: 1-8). However, it appears Eli continued in his role for many years later because his sons were unworthy to replace him (1 Samuel 4:15) and Zechariah lingered in his priestly role while “very old” (Luke 1:5-7).

Paul urged widows over sixty to be put on the list. Young widows, still capable of participating actively in family life, were urged to remarry ( 1 Timothy 5:9). Nevertheless, Psalm 90 sets the overall average lifespan at seventy - an age that has remained consistent for many generations.

In fact, throughout most of biblical history, people did not even live beyond fifty. As such, any discussion about ageing seemed pointless. Noteworthy is the astonishing fact that Joseph actually lived to 110 years old (Genesis 50:22). Later in history, the elderly Roman Spartans simply wandered off into the wilderness on their own when they could no longer contribute to the community. In later periods of Roman history, the government actually established “gerocomeia”, or homes for the elderly.

In the ancient Greek era, elderly people were highly respected as philosophers, poets, authors, artists, scientists, physicians or as civilians involved in politics, administration, and in military action. In today’s western culture, retirement is referred to as, “the final third” and others describe this stage as “the final quarter.” In short, for many people, current medical advances allow that the latter years of our life remain an important and vital stage.

Today senior adults are sometimes grouped as “still going”, “slow going”, and “no longer going”. Although these terms give too narrow a definition of senior adults (i.e. premised upon our ability to “go somewhere”), this taxonomy does help to explain Western culture which assumes that our ability to be mobile and independent impacts our stage in the senior journey. However, senior adults are far more than their mobility as will be noted in the short essays that follow this thread.

Questions and Reflections:

  • When did you begin to think, “I’m getting older?”
  • Who are some great examples of older adults that you have known?

[1] Sapp, Stephen- Full of Years (Nashville, Abingdon Press. 1987), p. 22