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March 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: How should Christians understand and respond to aging? What resources does the Christian faith have to enable Christians to age well?

In recent years, there has been much discussion in the media here about what has sometimes been anxiously described as the ‘silver tsunami’.

By 2030, it is estimated that one in five people in Singapore will be over 60. And with the third-highest life expectancy in the world (currently at 82.7 years), the government has been pro-active in introducing a slew of initiatives to cater to the diverse needs of our ageing population.

The Bible has much to say about the elderly.

There are passages that make the closest connection between living an upright life and longevity. For example, Proverbs 16:31 clearly depicts longevity as the reward of the righteous when it declares that ‘Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life’. And Psalm 92:12-14 promises that even in old age the righteous will continue to flourish and bear fruit.

But the Bible also captures vividly the anxieties that accompany ageing which even faithful believers experience. Thus, in Psalm 71 the psalmist prays movingly: ‘In you, O Lord, I take refuge … Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent’ (vv1, 9).

Christian reflection on what it means to grow old must surely also be guided by the realism of the Bible and acknowledge the ambiguities that accompany ageing. It must avoid the two opposing and extreme approaches in modern culture to ageing that have brought about untold confusion and frustration.

The first extreme is ‘ageism’, that mindset and perspective that sees ageing only in a negative light, that is, in terms of what it is not: not young, not productively employed, not energetic, not independent, and not fully engaged with the present.

Our therapeutic culture also presents ageing as something that must be strenuously forestalled (if that were possible) or cleverly camouflaged (if postponement fails). This anti-ageing message is spread through various means, not least in commercials that promise to remove the signs of ageing either by cosmetics or laser therapy.

Modern culture also glorifies the young, the powerful and the energetic. This subtly but powerfully conditions society to think of older people in generally negative and distorting ways – as useless, unattractive and burdensome.

The other extreme is the virulent reaction against ageism that seeks to demolish the harmful stereotypes it conjures by ignoring the real limitations that come with ageing. We see this in the portrayals of older people performing heroic and incredible feats that would put to shame people half their age, like doing chin-ups, jet skiing and skydiving.

Such an approach is as distorting and harmful as the myth it seeks to debunk.

As G.D. Bouma and B. R. Dixon have perceptively pointed out, the message that it sends ‘show no more tolerance for the intractable vicissitudes of old age than the older stereotypes; older people are now (or should be) healthy, sexually very active, engaged, productive and self-reliant – in other words, young’.

A Christian theology and spirituality of ageing must avoid the Scylla of ageism and the Charybdis of triumphalism: it must neither deny the limitations and suffering that older people experience nor denigrate the elderly and dismiss the contributions they can make in the community.

Following the delicate balance of Scripture, a Christian perspective to ageing must acknowledge and embrace its inherent ambiguities. As Canon Stephen Ames explains, ‘The ambiguity of ageing is the tension between old age as a time of fruition and decay, and fulfilment and loss’.

Christian writers have pointed out that the elderly have specific spiritual concerns and needs. They include questions relating to the meaning of life, anxieties about being self-sufficient, a sense of being vulnerable and issues pertaining to isolation and death.

To this list, Stanley Hauerwas adds the threat of ‘dementia, deafness, blindness, arthritis, helplessness, even repulsiveness; and worst of all the loneliness of outliving one’s contemporaries’.

The Church must be aware of the needs of her elderly members and offer special ministry and support that would enable them to flourish despite these anxieties.

While old age is often accompanied by suffering, it is important to remember that being old has to do with much more than suffering. The elderly in Christ must continue to acknowledge that the life he possesses is a gift from God, which by God’s grace still holds many surprises and possibilities. It is a life that can and should be lived for the glory of God.

This brings us to the heart of the matter: ageing and discipleship. As Christians grow old, they remain called to follow Christ and to be his witnesses in the Church and in the world.

As theologian M. Theresa Lysaught puts it, the elderly ‘remain called equally to the practices of the corporal and spiritual ministry, to sharing the faith with the young, and to the promotion of social justice’.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, who have traversed far along the road of obedience, the elderly are able to contribute to the life of the Church in ways that both complement and supplement the contributions of younger Christians.

The elderly bring with them their rich historical memories. They bring with them experience and wisdom. And by their exemplary virtue, the godly elderly can be both model and inspiration to many Christians, encouraging them to pursue godliness and spurring them to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The elderly who live for the glory of Christ will discover that the vicissitudes of old age – ill health and frailty – can never rob them of the peace and joy that comes from God. They will again and again discover the wonderful truth in the words of the 4th century bishop and theologian, Ambrose: ‘Every age is perfect in Christ. Every age is full of God’.

A Christian theology and spirituality of ageing must explore the depths of Ambrose’s vision. Nancy Baxter is surely right when she writes that ‘The church’s theological task is to understand the gift of life in old age in the light of the whole story, remembered and celebrated through all seasons of Christian living’.

The Church must therefore never see the elderly in a negative light: as passive members, unable to contribute much and are mostly in need of the ministrations of others. Instead the Church must be a community that affirms and celebrates the call and vocation of the elderly, welcoming them and giving thanks to God for their presence, their gifts and their participation.

The Church must recognise that without its elderly members she is incomplete and thus in many ways profoundly impoverished.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.