We talk easily and readily about the need we all have to love and to be loved, but as we grow into adulthood we need something else: to be needed. The human heart finds fulfilment in meeting the needs of someone else, but as we age we are needed less and less. This is a huge problem for a swathe of our population, three generations, leading to isolation and depression.
In May last year, in the UK, there were over 12million over the age of 65. That’s more than the total population of Belgium, and more than Denmark and Finland combined. A huge nation of the aged. What’s the future for this rapidly growing population if no one needs them to get up every day? I’m thinking particularly of the single elderly person because where there is a couple each one tends to serve the needs of the other and singles make up 40% of our retired population (and the proportion will grow as the divorce rate of people now in middle age takes its toll in years to come).
Am I, then, discounting the needs of couples? I hope not, but in a couple both probably feel needed because both have needs, however small. When I walk my dogs I’m conscious that couples talk to each other, sometimes continually, as they walk ( I do wonder what they find to talk about), that they have somewhere to go and something to do, that they are holding each other to a sort of informal unspoken timetable, just by being there. Jack needs Jill because not only will she pick him up when he falls down and breaks his crown, but because if Jill isn’t there he will feel her loss. Yes, he will need to collect only half a pail of water when he goes up the hill, which may seem like an immediate benefit, but he won’t have anyone to share it with. If he adapts his routine and fills the bucket to the brim only once every two days, then by the second day not only will the water taste stale but he also won’t be getting the exercise he needs. And he’s alone. And maybe lonely.
The most unfulfilling job I ever had was one with few responsibilities, no team, no staff meetings, no timetable, no acknowledgement, no urgency or set hours, no obvious end product, no jokes or teasing, no friendly familiarity, no thanks and no outlet for creativity. I can imagine you all saying “But is that even a job?”
Good point, compadres. And it’s a perfect picture of the old age experience for many; A retiree living alone has few responsibilities, no timetable, no one in need, no team, no appreciation, and no urgency. Few bloody jokes. A no job.
If we are to continue to intervene medically and surgically to keep the elderly alive, it would be good if they had something worth living for. I noticed, several months ago, that if you see two elderly people talking, then as you draw near you will hear words like “GP…. scan….MRI… blood test…” . Very very rarely (in fact, in the intervening months, not even once) will you hear about anything other than medical interventions. Is this to be our lot? Is this OK? Is this why we are alive, to do nothing but hold onto life grimly?
Apart from B&Q (more of them later) and a few others, not many employers say “We want to work with retired people! We value your experience!” but corporations, church leaders, politicians and entrepreneurs are always recruiting young people, saying they have the vision and the energy, and new ideas untrammelled by precedent. Of course all this is true, but if they unthinkingly rule out the contribution and value of the elderly, then it’s bigotry.
A few years ago B&Q started recruiting retired people as in-store staff and this was very successful. Since then others have followed suit, including banks, MacDonalds(!) and even coach companies. One cashier at B&Q was still working at 96. I am not a practical person and when B&Q began to advertise for older employees my husband had just died and I was moving house, with a teenager in tow. B&Q was the one store where I could ask about locks and drains and gutters and electrical wiring, and get the advice I needed, without the bored shrugs and indifference of spotty youths. I loved B&Q!
But sympathetic employers are still rare so how do we take this huge population of the ‘elderly fit’ and bring them into our sphere of activity? I don’t know, any more than anyone else knows. It’s one of the great challenges of today.
As a Christian I would love to say that the Christian church has the answer but I can’t. Certainly Jesus Christ holds the answer, but His church hasn’t found it yet. There are clear instructions in the Bible, scattered throughout, and a big chunk comes in 1 Timothy. Culturally it was the widow who was in need of support, but now it is equally the widower, and the singleton;
Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. 1 Timothy 5:3&4
And James has quite a bit to say, with relevance to all in need at any age:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? James 2:14-16
I wonder if there is a way we can embrace and include the elderly, not just say ‘we value you’ but then tuck them away out of sight? I don’t have any answers. I really wish I did.
Last year I looked at Christian Communities, hoping to find one that I could usefully join but I soon realised that I’d left it too late. If I had joined as a younger person, with more to give, then my old age would have morphed into an integral part of community life, but to join now would be loading them unfairly, treating them as a geriatric facility, and that’s not what a Christian commune is about. Maybe that’s the answer I’m looking for… maybe it’s only by living as a community through every age that we can live as a community in our later years. If this is true then I, and my generation, have missed the boat.
I think that’s true. Do you? Do you think it’s true that an old person can live as a vital part of community only if he or she is already established as a part of that community? That they can’t be grafted on in their frail years and truly integrate because that’s when they need far more care than they can give. If I had lived as part of a church community, then as I reach old age I would still be an intrinsic part of that church. But that’s not how I, and the vast majority of my generation, has lived. And so we are alone.
What’s the church doing about the millions of ageing loners? What am I doing about them? I’m the church. Being elderly doesn’t absolve me of responsibility. How can we, how can I, support everyone, including our older brothers and sisters and bring them all right into the heart of worship and church life? And beyond this, how can we take the Great Commission to people who are housebound and isolated? How can we reach out to the elderly who don’t yet know Christ? It’s great and necessary and wonderful to have youth clubs and drop-ins and activities for the young…. but is the octogenarian soul worthless? How do we reach the shut-ins?
My church has a craft afternoon and a coffee morning, largely attended by retirees. In a small room. In a quite large town. Hmmm. Now, here’s the thing… if someone has only a very small opportunity for companionship, then they will cling onto that small opportunity for grim life. They will guard it jealously. And I mean ‘jealously’. It won’t necessarily be a beautiful sight, the way they cling on. If the ministry for the elderly is meagre and minimal, then the elderly might, being human, become defensive, resenting any suggestion of change and maybe even resenting the rest of the church. We might just end up with a them-and-us division.
I know I’m looking at a huge problem. There’s no quick fix for this age-divided society. But I know, too, that I’m part of the problem and I can’t absolve myself.
What could we start? Not a weekly ‘event’ but a coming together, a belonging, a family for those who have no family…. something that’s more than a small opportunity… something that stretches over time like companionship, like friendship, something that isn’t cancelled for Christmas, something that isn’t a couple of hours on a Sunday and another on a Thursday. Something that accepts and values all people and makes time for them.
It may be too late for my generation, but for the 30, 40, 50 year olds, the old people of tomorrow… is there a community we can forge together? Is there a way of life we can share? Is it called the church? Is it working?