A Hoary Head is a Crown of Glory: Against Ageism
In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, a book which inspired modern feminism. This book and the fallout from it did not endear Friedan to Christians. Her approach to the issue of women in society was completely unbiblical. Her ideas helped spawn the present-day situation in which women no longer see it as their joy to be the kind of women the apostle Paul describes in Titus 2:3-5. Instead, the career woman who seeks fulfilment in job rather than family is glorified. Friedan found it unfortunate that women had evolved into childbearers and caregivers. She considered herself wiser than God the Creator.
Recently, however, Friedan (who is now 72 years of age) published a new book, this time not about women, but about aging. In this latest book, The Fountain of Age, Friedan tries to refute “the image of age as inevitable decline.” She argues that gerontologists concentrate far too much “on the victims of the most extreme ravages of senility, the sick, helpless old.” That focus, according to her, may have blinded not only the profession, but also older people themselves to the possibilities of life after 60. Speculation is that with this new book Friedan is at the cutting edge of a new movement: the anti-ageism movement.
It is true that North American culture has viewed aging in a very negative light. Hollywood has always espoused youthful beauty as the ideal. The cosmetic scene is constantly presenting whole new lines of anti-aging compounds to apply to wrinkles. And television documentary-type ads repeat over and over again that men don't have to be stuck with baldness, but can take years off their appearance with special implants and treatments. All this has contributed to ageism, which is discrimination against and prejudicial stereotyping of older people.
But anti-ageism is gaining steam as the population ages. In four decades the number of Canadians over 65 is expected to grow from the present 3.2 million to 8.7 million. The baby boomers will start turning 65 around the year 2010. This means that there will soon be a lot of seniors. That, in turn, will mean a change in trends and values. It will mean that aging will not be seen as negatively as it has been in the past.
It is evident from what happened with the Doritos tortilla chip commercial on television that this is already happening. In that ad, a befuddled elderly woman was shown eating out of a bag of Doritos, ignorant of the fact that she was about to be pushed into wet cement and run over by an approaching steamroller. A gentleman sees it all about to happen, and comes to the rescue. But he doesn't rescue the elderly woman. He rescues the bag of Doritos, while she ends up in the cement. The manufacturer received so many complaints that the commercial was negative to older persons that it had to be withdrawn from the air.
There is much to be said in support of the anti-ageism sentiment. It is wrong to be prejudiced against older persons. We as Christians too must experience a reformation of sorts. Also among our people, once in a while a negative view of ageing comes to light. Seniors' residences are still sometimes referred to in denigrating terms, and this should not be. Even when compliments are paid to the elderly, they are often made without realizing that they are negative about old age. “You look so young yet!” Comments like this say nothing positive about old age. Even when the very elderly are visited and spoken to, it can be done in a very condescending way. They are spoken to and smiled over like children, rather than being treated with respect for their years and for the things they have experienced and done.
We must see aging as the Bible sees it. The Bible speaks in a very positive way about aging. For all that is preached against ageism by Friedan and the “anti-ageism movement,” I believe they still miss the real reason why the elderly should not be put down in any way. Friedan and others base their anti-ageism on human rights and the belief that all have a right to equal treatment. But for Christians anti-ageism has a much deeper basis. The real reason not to be negative about ageing is that God in His Word speaks very positively about the elderly. Old age is a blessing and an honour and, according to the Bible, the elderly are to be regarded with respect.
In Leviticus 19:32 the LORD says to His people, “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” In Israel, then, it was the LORD's will that younger persons would rise to their feet as a sign of respect whenever an elderly person approached. After all, they had contributed over the years to the life and well-being of the congregation, and had endured in faith through days gone by. In line with this, Proverbs 16:31 says, “A hoary head is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” Proverbs 20:29 states, “The glory of young men is their strength, but the beauty of old men is their grey hair.” In Proverbs 23:22 we find this command, “Hearken to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old.” Lest you think that only the Old Testament speaks in this vein, here is a passage yet from the New Testament, 1 Timothy 5:1, 2: “Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.” In His Word, then, God commands respect and honour as well as care for the elderly.
The Bible speaks of old age as a blessing. The fifth commandment, “Honour your father and your mother,” is appended by the promise, “that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you.” In Deuteronomy 6:2 the same promise is made in connection with keeping the LORD's commandments, “and that your days may be prolonged.” Psalm 34:12-14 expresses the same idea: “What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” Proverbs 3:1,2 says, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare will they give you.” In these passages of Scripture, old age is seen as a blessing to be enjoyed in thankfulness to God.
We must conclude that old age is not something to be denigrated. Ageism is wrong, a sin. The elderly must be shown the respect which is due them. Certainly, it isn't always easy to deal with elderly parents or neighbours. Age often brings on limitations in physical or mental health. But we need the elderly around us to remind us to “number our days” (Psalm 90:12). As the nineteenth-century Scottish commentator Andrew Bonar wrote in connection with Proverbs 19:32 (quoted above):
Both the infirmity and the wisdom of the aged have a claim on us; and besides, age, apart from its qualities, has in it solemnity. By the sight of it, the Lord would solemnise us in the midst of our pursuits.
Even as they lose their physical or mental health due to age, the elderly are a blessed reminder of the fact that our days here on earth are all numbered. As such, they deserve the attention of those who are younger. They are resources which may not be left to pine away in loneliness.
We need the elderly more than we realize, especially in the communion of saints. We need their life's wisdom. The elderly may not be able to keep up with all the latest technology, but their down-to-earth wisdom in dealing with life's ups and downs is invaluable. They have learned many of life's lessons from experience, and whoever forgets the past is destined to repeat it. We need their wisdom especially when it comes to the application of faith in our daily lives. It is important for the young of today to hear the faith experiences of the old. They can give valuable information that can't be found in books or in computer programs. Times change, but there is a timeless wisdom which needs to be passed on from generation to generation. From the experiences of the elderly, the next generation learns the faithfulness and goodness of God.
This is why honour and respect for the elderly are commanded in the Bible. If we show that respect, the elderly will not view their age as a negative thing. They will be much more capable of dealing with the difficulties of old age. The words of Scripture show that it is no degradation to become a senior. Rather, the Bible speaks of it as a promotion. The stereotypes which present youth as vigorous and valuable and old age as weakness and worthlessness are not Biblical. According to the Bible, the elderly need not lose their self-respect.
Those who lack self-respect themselves make it hard for others to respect them. They throw away the honour which belongs to old age when they experience aging as something negative and show that attitude in their way of speaking and acting. The elderly should not give up looking for ways to benefit others, even if it is only with words. With their life's experience they are required to serve the communion of saints as much as they are able, and not let themselves be shoved aside as infirm and helpless.
I have heard older men say that they are too limited in capacities to be officebearer any more in the church. Let younger men lead and deal with the saints, they say. But I get the feeling that it is too easily said. We need the older men with their experience and wisdom as elders and deacons. Consider the term “elder.” That says something, doesn't it? Similarly, the older women are needed in society life. They have talents and capabilities that need to be passed on. It is not for nothing that the apostle Paul writes to Titus in Titus 2:3-5,
Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behaviour, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the Word of God may not be discredited.
The elderly are to be useful members of the congregation and of society. I'm afraid that some have taken the approach that age 65 means retirement not only from daily work, but also from the communion of saints, where we are “duty-bound to use our gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members”(Lord's Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism). Some retreat from that communion, even seeking rest and relaxation away from it for extended periods of time in faraway places in the sun. But the communion needs the elderly, their gifts and their wisdom and active participation. According to Scripture, their place remains within the house of the LORD, as it says in Psalm 92:14, where “they shall bring forth fruit in old age, they are ever full of sap and green, to show that the LORD is upright…” The elderly are needed to confirm the following generations in the faith and in the Reformed traditions (see Psalm 78:5ff).
Both young and old must keep in mind that, according to the Bible, growing old is not an inevitable and sorry fate, but it is a blessing and honour. As the population of Canada ages, Christians should avoid all ageism and keep the positive Biblical perspective on growing old. It is even a joyful perspective. For it is true that the infirmities of the elderly remind us, in the words of Isaiah 40:6 and 7, that our days are like grass which withers. But they also direct us to what it says in that very same chapter of Isaiah, verses 30 and 31:
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.