More people are living longer than ever before in history, and not just in developed countries, according to a newly published United Nations study. The survey examined social and economic welfare in 91 nations from Austria to Afghanistan, and found that very few are prepared for a burgeoning population of older citizens.
As the author of a new book on facing old age, I was fascinated by the study’s exploration of what it’s like to be elderly in places like Jordan or Vietnam. But the media coverage that followed the study’s release was marred by a jarring tendency. The aging of the world’s population was discussed primarily as a problem, even a crisis
But old age is not a disease to be eradicated like malaria or polio. Obviously health problems are part of growing older – I speak from experience! – and by all means we must do a better job of helping those impacted socially and financially. Yet in tackling these challenges, let’s not lose sight of something precious: the gifts of old age, which can benefit all of society.
Our culture has lost perspective on growing old. Advances in medicine have given us a false sense of immortality. In idolizing youth, vigor, and bodily health, we become obsessed with postponing the telltale signs of aging as long as possible. But God is concerned with deepening life’s meaning.
There is an entire industry dedicated to helping us rebel against the physical symptoms of growing old. The myriad cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and exercise programs tailored to the elderly all try to convince us that being young is the only way to be. But realistically, by the time we are in our seventies, each of us has at least begun to lose some of our abilities. Our hair gets grayer (if it’s there at all), our skin more wrinkled, and our gait slower. Why can’t we accept this?
God certainly accepts us as we grow old. Scripture makes it quite clear that God loves the aged and holds them in high regard. Shouldn’t we do the same? A long life is a blessing from God, and with it comes a responsibility to the next generation.
There are many stories of God using old people to accomplish his purposes. Abraham and Sarah were already old when their son Isaac was born. Moses was eighty years old when he led God’s people out of Egypt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were “well along in years” when John the Baptist was born to them. If we could have even an inkling of the ways of God, we would find that growing old does not have to be a slow decline. We do not need to assume that our best days are behind us.
Those who retain a sense of adventure as their health declines will be able to face the indignities of old age with grace and good humor. This is a lesson I learned from Eileen Robertshaw, a feisty Englishwoman who remained in excellent health well into old age. She swam regularly until she reached her eighties. But eventually, she found that by accepting that she had entered a different stage of life, she could better contribute to those around her:
There seem to be two temptations as we grow older. One is to take advantage of any help that might be offered to us and become lazy and self-indulgent. The other is to be too intent on independence. Yielding to the first makes one spineless and selfish; yielding to the other can absorb our strength and attention at the expense of our relationships with other people.
When I finally decided to get a caregiver, life became enriched in ways I had not imagined. In becoming more dependent, I had more time and opportunity for interaction with others. Even if I didn’t need a proffered arm, I learned to say, “I don’t really need it, but I’d love to have your company.” My philosophy is, keep going as much and as long as you can, but don’t let it isolate you.
As Eileen suggests, growing older can be a gift, not an affliction. But we’ll only be able to receive this gift and pass on its benefits to others if we surrender ourselves to God’s plan. Then we can stop complaining about things we can’t do anymore and realize that God is finding new ways to use us. Most importantly, we can encourage those around us.
Even with our physical and mental abilities curtailed, those of us who are older have many opportunities to work for humanity and for God’s kingdom on earth by living out the two main commandments of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39). Through our example, we can inspire those who are younger to do the same.
Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life (2013), from which this essay is adapted.
Is old age something to treasure rather than dread? Are you looking forward to growing older yourself? Share your thoughts.