What is the most polite way to refer to an old person? Have you noticed how the words we collectively use to refer to old people in the media and in private conversation keep changing? It’s a strange process. We start using a word or phrase, for example, ‘old man’, ‘old woman’. After a while, we decide that this phrase is really a little derogatory, and so we change to another, more neutral phrase, such as ‘senior citizen’. But after a while, ‘senior citizen’ sounds condescending and slightly offensive. So we try another, more neutral, word—like ‘elderly’. But the same thing happens: after we use the word ‘elderly’ for a while, it starts to sound a bit insulting. So we try ‘aged’. Then ‘ageing’. And so on. The reason this keeps happening is that our underlying concept of ageing itself is negative. It doesn’t matter what word we choose to express it; that word will start to take on the negative connotations that we associate with the underlying concept.
Ageing, for us, is a terrible thing. Nobody wants to be old. We have created an entire cosmetic industry dedicated to covering up the disastrous effects of ageing. We don’t want to be look old because we don’t want to be old. Why are we so negative about ageing? It’s because ageing represents the opposite of our core values. We live in a society that puts a huge value on freedom, choice, fulfilment of desires, strength and independence. All these values are far more obtainable by the young than by the old. Increasing age means diminishing freedom, limited choice, lower potential for fulfilment, increasing weakness and growing dependence.
Furthermore, we believe that old people actually limit the potential of the young people around them. Old people are a ‘burden’, a challenge, an increasing demand on an economy that is ‘driven’ by the young. Or at least, this is the way we often talk about ageing.
What light does the gospel of Jesus Christ shed on ageing? The doctrine of creation remind us that God has created a good and ordered world for humans to rule under his loving oversight. Old people, by virtue of their greater experience in this world, have invaluable wisdom to offer the young. Young people need the presence, experience and wisdom of godly old people in our communities, in our homes (e.g. Prov 23:22) and in our churches (e.g. Titus 1:5, 2:3). Old people are not a burden. In fact, we can’t do without them.
Nevertheless, ageing is a reminder that our world is under a curse. The increasing weakness, futility and numbness of old age (Eccl 12:1-6) is merely the forerunner to death (Eccl 12:7), which all stems from God’s judgement for our rebellion against him (Gen 3:19). The debilitating effects of ageing remind us that there is something terribly wrong with our world and our relationship with God, and that should make us turn to him for salvation.
The fact that Jesus came as a servant to die as a ransom for our sins and to help those who cannot help themselves (Mark 10:45, Romans 5:6) teaches us that God cares for the weak, the feeble, the vulnerable. Following the crucified saviour means caring for those who need our care (Mark 10:43-44, Phil 2:4-11), including the aged among us (1 Tim 5:8). We all need to acknowledge the great value of aged care, and support those individuals and professionals who care for old people.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us that mortality, frailty and death are not God’s final plan for humanity. Jesus’ body didn’t see decay (Acts 13:37); likewise, all those who trust in him look forward to receiving renewed, immortal bodies from God (1 Cor 15:42-44). In Christ, old people, as much as young people, are created in the image of an imperishable, immortal saviour (1 Cor 15:49) and share equally in that massive potential for freedom, glory and fulfilment in the new creation.
But the gospel demands faith and repentance. Do we trust in God’s promises enough to also entrust him with our fears and anxieties about our own ageing? Do we need to change our attitudes and our actions so that we properly value and love the old people in our midst?