Who Am I as a Senior Citizen?
They shall still bring forth fruit in old age.Psalm 92:14
We are living in an extraordinary period of history, particularly when we focus on our Western world. Never before in the history of mankind have men lived as well and as comfortably as we do in our Western society. We enjoy creature comforts that previous generations of kings and rulers could have only dreamed of, and we have access to health-care provisions that were unthinkable only a hundred years ago — even fifty years ago. As a result, the average life span in our Western world has increased dramatically during the past century. The National Institute of Aging addresses this as follows:
The dramatic increase in average life expectance during the 20th century ranks as one of society’s greatest achievements. Although most babies born in 1900 did not live past age 50, life expectancy at birth now exceeds 83 years in Japan — the current leader — and is at least 81 years in several other countries ... These improvements are part of a major transition in human health spreading around the globe at different rates and along different pathways ... In early nonindustrial societies, the risk of death was high at every age, and only a small proportion of people reached old age. In modern societies, most people live past middle age, and deaths are highly concentrated at older ages.1
The NIA also informs us that “in 2010, an estimated 524 million people were aged 65 or older — 8 percent of the world’s population. By 2050, this number is expected to nearly triple to about 1.5 billion, representing 16 percent of the world’s population.”2
This means that the number of senior citizens in our society has increased dramatically, and that is particularly true now that the so-called “baby-boomer” generation (to which I belong) is coming “of age.” As a result of the extraordinary healthcare our post-war generation has enjoyed, it is now becoming increasingly common for people to live well into their eighties or nineties. There are even a growing number of senior citizens who are passing the hundred-year mark.
Consequently, many more Christians are now reaching the age of the strong and the very strong, and that means that a growing number of us must learn incrementally what it means to live the Christian life as a senior citizen. However, to do so in a God-glorifying manner, aging Christians must have a clear grasp of their Christian identity, for only then will they be profitable during the aging process and will the words of Psalm 92:14 be an experiential reality: “They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.”
The significance of understanding what our identity is as aging Christians becomes all the more clear when we briefly focus on the challenges Christians increasingly face as they grow older. Many Christians never faced these challenges prior to the onset of the twentieth century, for they never lived to be that old.
Challenge # 1: Retirement
Our society has arbitrarily determined that one should retire at the age of 65. An increasing number of people still enjoy excellent mental and physical health at this age, and would therefore be fit to engage in their profession well beyond this age. Therefore, for those who are still privileged to enjoy such health, mandated retirement can be, and often is, a dramatic event that affects them profoundly. For most people, their identity is very much defined by the work they do, and when suddenly that work is no longer part of their daily lives, retirement can precipitate a rather serious identity crisis. They suddenly feel that they are no longer making a meaningful contribution to their families and to society.
Challenge # 2: Loss of Spouse
So often when married couples arrive at the so-called “golden years” (or even before getting there), one of the spouses will pass away, and the surviving spouse must now journey life’s pathway alone. By the time married couples arrive at this stage in life, spouses will have established such an intertwined identity that the decease of the one spouse will leave a gaping hole in the heart and life of the other.
Challenge # 3: Health Issues
Though the number of senior citizens has increased dramatically during the past fifty years, for many of them, the so-called “golden years” are anything but golden, for as they gain in age, they often must deal with the increasing decline of their health and strength, and more often than not they have to live with debilitating illness, chronic pain, loss of mobility, etc. All of this can profoundly affect the mindset of senior citizens and make life increasingly difficult and unsettling.
Challenge # 4: Decline of Mental Faculties
This, too, can be so unsettling, particularly when the senior citizen finds himself in the twilight zone between being of a sound mind and dementia. Often they sense what is happening and experience what to them is a frightening loss of control.
What a blessing it is, therefore, when one may enter the evening season of life as a Christian and deal with any or all of these challenges from a biblical perspective! By the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, the Christian will learn gradually that his true identity is ultimately not defined by either his status in life, his possessions, his health, or any other circumstances. Rather, his true identity is defined by who he or she is in Christ. And if the Christian senior citizen is focused on that blessed reality, he will be able to deal with the challenges of old age. He will know that also these things must ultimately work together for his spiritual good (Rom. 8:28-29), and that none of the aforementioned challenges can separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
How starkly different this is for unbelieving senior citizens. Their entire identity is wrapped up in this world and all that pertains to it. It is so disillusioning for them when, upon arriving at the golden years, their life in which they have invested all their time and energy begins to fall apart. They experience the reality of Psalm 90:10 that our years consist of “labor and sorrow” — many years of hard work, followed by the sorrow of old age and all of its challenges. In the end, nothing else will be left but feeble and frail human beings who have been betrayed by the siren song of this world, promising a happiness that eludes him in the end.
What a privilege it is therefore to live our senior years as a Christian when the challenges of old age increasingly become a thorn in the flesh. It is precisely then that believing seniors may experience that Christ will make His strength perfect in weakness, and that His grace is sufficient for our insufficiency (2 Cor. 12:9). Furthermore, if our focus may indeed be a scriptural one during our declining years, we will embrace by faith that our decline is but a reminder that our redemption is drawing nigh, which in turn should intensify our desire to be with Christ, which is far better (Phil 1:21-23). In other words, if, by grace, we enjoy the only comfort in life and death of not belonging to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, we can face the sunset of our lives and deal with all the challenges that will come our way.
This is not to suggest that believing senior citizens do not know seasons of discouragement and frustration. It is true for them also that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. However, what an inexpressible privilege it is when during such seasons we have a heavenly Father we can turn to, who will prove to be our refuge and strength also in our old age, and a very present help in trouble (Psa. 46:1-2). Also then we will experience that when we are weak we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10).
However, we ought not to focus only on the negative aspects of our senior years. God’s Word has some remarkable things to say about these years. Here is a sampling:
Thou shalt rise up before the hoary (gray) head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God.Leviticus 19:32
The hoary (gray) head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.Proverbs 16:31
The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the gray head.Proverbs 20:29
And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar (gray) hairs will I carry you.Isaiah 46:4
In other words, God’s Word bestows a special honor upon the gray head, “if it be found in the way of righteousness.” Indeed, from a biblical perspective, life does not end at the age of 65. From the perspective of an ungodly and secular world, the life of a senior citizen is of little value, for our seniors can no longer contribute to the bottom line of our economy — and they are viewed as a burden to our government and our medical system.
The Bible, however, exhorts us to honor the gray head. And we are to do so for a good reason, for the senior citizens among us have a great deal to offer:
- Due to a lifetime of experience, they can offer wise counsel to younger people.
- Godly seniors can be great role models for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Are there not many believers among us who have unforgettable memories of interacting with godly grandparents?
- And last but not least, senior Christians can be the great prayer-warriors of the local church. Their retirement offers them ample opportunity to engage in intercessory prayer, and only eternity will reveal how many godly seniors have proven to be a great blessing to God’s church.
All of this affirms that our senior years, in spite of all their challenges, can be a most profitable season — a season in which, by God’s grace, we can also bear much fruit if, by faith, we may daily abide in the Lord Jesus Christ.
That unbreakable union with Christ ultimately defines who we are as Christian seniors. Therefore, also regarding the senior years, the words of Jeremiah are applicable:
Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me.Jeremiah 9:23-24