The Position of the Elderly
A Forgotten Group?
In this article we will focus our attention on the elderly members of the congregation. What is their position in our midst, and how do we deal with them? Do we show due respect to the elderly or do we only tolerate them? Do they still have a task and place in daily life, or have they become spectators, standing or sitting on the sidelines? How do we treat our elderly members and how do we take care of them? Is an old age home with nursing facilities the ideal situation or do we prefer to have them in a normal family setting? And what do they themselves prefer? In the past the older generation used to live with their children and grandchildren. Nowadays the situation is different. Is that an improvement or is it only for the convenience of an overly busy new generation? Such questions become even more pressing when we deal with demented persons.
We live in the era of the youth. In the past the younger generation had to learn a trade or skill from the older generation. In the Guilds the younger generation was painstakingly taught the secrets of the trade by the older members. Nowadays it is different. Modern technology has resulted in a rapidly changing society. Children play and grow up with the computer, and many students outsmart their teachers in computer literacy. Recently we heard, via the news media, that a group of high school students was able to “break” the security system of an important institution. They were invited to test the system and within seven minutes they managed to get through a security system which was considered to be “safe.” While many older people have no idea what a computer is, the children grow up with it and it is part of their life, in their games as well as in their education. This development makes the elderly people feel even more alienated. Their experience, their skills and their knowledge, which were such vital elements in the Guilds in the past, seem to be of no value any longer.
In order to put matters in the right perspective, we had better first listen to what the Bible says about the position of the elderly.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible very often speaks about the elders of the people. When this expression is used, especially in the Old Testament, it has a dual meaning. The “elders of the people” often refers to a certain group of officers who were in charge of ruling and governing the people. At the same time, the title “elders” indicates that for such an office, older and more experienced people were chosen. Age was considered very important, and the difference in age between two persons counted as a guideline to determine their position with respect to each other. In the book of Job we read about four friends of Job, who came to comfort him and to admonish him. One of them, named Elihu, was apparently rather young, compared to the others. Therefore he waited and listened, until the others were finished. After the other three had spoken a few times, and after Job had answered them, finally he, the youngest one, spoke. In Job 32:6,7 we read, “And Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite answered: 'I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. I said, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.'“ In this particular case wisdom was not synonymous with age. Elihu was disappointed with what his older friends had said. Therefore we read in the verses 8-10,
But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old that are wise, nor the aged that understand what is right. Therefore I say, 'Listen to me; let me also declare my opinion.'
Although in this particular situation the words of the youngest friend of Job showed more wisdom than what was said by the three older men, it still shows us the respect for the aged. It also demonstrates that in general the opinion of the older people was considered to be very important.
The fifth commandment says that we have to honour our father and our mother and all those who are in authority over us. In 1 Timothy 4:12 the Apostle Paul encourages the (apparently rather young) preacher and office-bearer Timothy, saying, “Let no one despise your youth.” This text shows us that an office-bearer does not necessarily have to be an older man. Still in general, age is considered to be important. Even today, in many local regulations for the election of office-bearers, we find the rule that in case of a tie vote the older of the two is considered to be chosen.
The Bible teaches us clearly that we have to respect and honour the older people because of their age. Real wisdom is often not a matter of study and academic knowledge, but rather experience in the school of life, in which many things have to be learned the hard way in the course of many years. The Bible also clearly teaches us that the elderly are responsible to give wise judgment, and that age is not a guarantee for being right, as the example of Job 32:6-10 shows.
These are the basic rules which we should keep in mind when we have a closer look at the position of the elderly people among us.
One of the most important aspects of the position of the elderly is that they should remain involved in social and congregational life as much as possible. In most jobs and professions there is a mandatory retirement age. Retirement is a very important point in the life of elderly people. It often means a complete change in their pattern of life. Especially for people who have no hobbies or other activities which keep them busy, it can be a dangerous transition. All of a sudden they feel useless and put aside. In many instances we see that such people have problems with their health which they never had before. One's mental and physical condition are so closely related that such a drastic change reflects in the physical condition. It would be going too far to advocate doing away with all mandatory retirement, as some propagate. Although the one might very well be able to continue past this age, another might be happy that he can enjoy a well deserved rest, without being outrightly declared disabled. There is certainly a great difference in personal circumstances, and a mandatory retirement age can be useful. Without it some might not be willing to give up and continue even when they are physically not able to do so, or while the quality of their work or their production goes down. Moreover, with the current high unemployment rate it may be advisable to give younger people a chance to find a job and meaningful employment.
The most important point in this respect is that retirement does not mean that someone becomes useless. On the contrary. Such a change in one's way of life has to be prepared for well in advance. Retirement means that someone is relieved from the regular duties and can spend time on other things. Older people should remain involved in everyday life, in social as well as congregational life, as much as possible. There is a lot of so-called “unpaid” work, that can be done. Such a transition cannot be made overnight, but requires careful preparation. It is remarkable to see how many people start having health problems shortly after they retire; those who have adapted to their new situation, are less prone to suffer such a “transition syndrome.” It is certainly not true that older people cannot make an important contribution to community life. Not everyone can be active in the same way. That is why retirement opens the possibility to adjust to a person's own capabilities. There are cases where people at an older age start an important career. Some have become Head of State or President at an age that others retire. Recent examples can be found in the United States, France and Germany. Some have managed to obtain a doctor's degree after retirement. However, those are the exceptions. Most people have to slow down, but can still be of great value while they are retired. The worst thing is to “give up” and sit idle. That is true in a lot of circumstances, but in a special way for the elderly. They should try to remain involved in everyday life and the younger generation should give them the opportunity to remain involved and stimulate them to be active within the limitations of their position. The younger generation can certainly gain a lot by using the experience and the wisdom of the older generation. Let us not ignore the Biblical guideline. Although it might seem to be outdated, the advice of Job 32:7 is still relevant. “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.”
The Problem of Stepping Down
After what has been said in the previous section about the importance of remaining involved, we also have to pay attention to the other side of the coin, namely, the problem of stepping down when necessary. In almost every position in human society there comes a time that someone cannot function any longer in the optimum way, or even in a reasonably sufficient way. It is always difficult to acknowledge that one has to step down or give up a certain position. Everyone has his pride and it almost seems a matter of capitulation to acknowledge that someone else has to take over the job. Still, it can be proof of wisdom to step down, to slow down, or to hand over a task to a younger generation. I once heard someone give this advice to his middle-aged colleagues: “Try to step down before others have to ask you to step aside.” It is not always easy however, to give up something, but we should realize that others might be better equipped to take over, while for the person who gives up a certain task, something else may be available that fits his qualifications much better. Especially a Christian should realize that the Lord did not only give different talents to different people, but that He also asks from us to use our gifts the way He requires it from us. Unwillingness to give up, to step down, or to take up another task, is certainly not the most appropriate attitude for a Christian.
Taking Care of the Elderly
The care for the elderly becomes more and more of a problem, for a variety of reasons. The combination of better health care and the subsequent increasing average life span, and the declining birthrate, cause very specific problems. In the future there will be an increasing number of elderly to take care of, and an equally decreasing number of people to provide and pay for the facilities to take care of them. In the time of the Old Testament the older generation was always the centre of attention, highly respected by all. It was not too long ago that even in our modern society older people stayed with their relatives as much as possible, and only in exceptional cases they were transferred to an old age home, which were not always nice facilities. Often they were for the poor, the demented, and those who did not have any relatives to look after them. Such homes were run either by the deacons or by the government. In these homes older people had little privacy or no privacy at all. I still remember the homes with one bedroom for eight women and another bedroom for eight men, with married couples separated from each other by lack of privacy. They certainly sometimes lived in deplorable circumstances.
Nowadays we have very nice and comfortable facilities for the elderly. However, the care for those who need help, the physically dependent and the demented is still a problem. The costs are high and can, in most cases, not be paid by the elderly themselves. The relatives are often not able either to pay for such very expensive facilities. The budgets of nursing homes are cut down and the staff is under constant pressure, not having enough time to provide sufficient attention to those elderly who completely depend on their help. A recent report of the CLAC about the working and living conditions in Ontario Nursing Homes revealed that most nursing homes are seriously understaffed and underfunded. The budget needs to be doubled to provide adequate care. By way of comparison the report points to the fact “that our society spends more than $120 a day per prisoner and less than $26 per day on each elderly, disabled nursing home resident.”
In the Netherlands there have been discussions going on for years, whether government help can be accepted for the housing of the elderly, or whether this should be paid for by the deacons. Nowadays almost everywhere in the Netherlands the cost of the old age homes, as well as the nursing homes, is heavily subsidized or completely paid for by the government. In Canada the government is less eager to pick up the tab. That makes more urgent the question whether we should move the elderly to a special home or whether we should try to take care of them in a family setting.
Special Facilities for the Elderly
In a previous section we saw that the question whether elderly people have to step down or remain involved in all kinds of activities is not a matter of black and white. It can be a matter of wisdom for the elderly to give up a certain job and hand it over to the younger generation, in order to be able to carry on with other activities or to take up a more suitable task. In another situation, however, it might be better to let people carry on, instead of giving them the feeling that they are finished. It all depends on the circumstances. No two cases are the same. We have to find the right balance. Some people have to slow down in time in order to be able to remain involved as much as possible in a position they can still handle.
The same is true to a certain extent regarding the housing of elderly people. The right balance has to be found. What does that mean? Let me try to explain.
Some elderly couples live in their own homes, and are quite able to take care of themselves. The age is not determinant. Whether they still can manage their own household depends on their physical and mental condition. If a couple does not need any help, and is quite well able to take care of everything, it would be foolish to force them to leave their familiar environment and move into an old age home, where they would only have a rather small apartment. It would make them feel restricted in their freedom and forced to sit on the sidelines.
Another couple, possibly of the same age, or even younger, might have come into a situation in which it is very difficult for them to take care of everything. Their house has become too big for them and too much work is required to keep it up. In such a situation help is needed. It is nice if children, living close by, are able to provide the neccesary help. Although it might even be better for them to move into a senior citizens home, where they have less room, but are still able to manage without help. In such a situation misplaced pride should not prevent them from giving up an existing situation which has become too much for them, and accept a less demanding, but in the long run more satisfying position.
Another situation where the right balance has to be found is when people become physically dependent, or even emotionally disturbed or demented. Then it would be nice that older people, especially those who are widowed, can stay with their children and be cared for in the family setting. We should not be too eager to put them away in an institution. The situation in a nursing home is often far from ideal, especially at present with the situation of restraint and understaffing. If there is a real possibility to stay home, it certainly deserves preference.
However, we also have to realize that in many situations it is almost impossible to keep up the good work. Unrealistic pride should not prevent people from accepting the help of a nursing home in cases where it is really warranted. An important aspect in such a situation is that we should not forget those who were placed in a special home. The saying, “Out of sight, out of mind” should not happen in such situations. Often they look eagerly forward to a visit or any other kind of attention.
We have to show honour, love, and respect to the older generation, also in the way we deal with such brothers and sisters.
I should like to summarize the whole matter as follows:
The Bible clearly teaches us that we have to show honour and respect to the elderly, although age is not always a guarantee of wisdom (Job 32:6-10).
We should leave the elderly as much as is possible involved in all kinds of activities, but it can be proof of wisdom, when an elderly person gives up a position before it becomes too much for him, and takes on a job which he can handle better.
We should leave the elderly as much and as long as possible, in their own environment, but sometimes it can be wiser to move them to a smaller apartment in order to stay independent.
It would be applaudable if all elderly people could remain in the family setting, but sometimes placing them in a nursing home is almost inevitable.
Not only widows, but for all of us counts what the apostle Paul writes to Timothy. Let us all learn our religious duties to our family members, and make some return to our parents and to the older generation in general, for that is acceptable in the sight of God (cp. 1 Timothy 5:3).