by Rod Benson
Despite much media preoccupation with youth and youthfulness, Australian society is rapidly greying. Soon one in four Australians will be over 60 years old. Younger adults will feel increasing pressure to care for older citizens, and fund their health and lifestyle requirements through taxes. Politicians will feel strong pressures as they listen to the perspectives of ageing people and consider just responses. Similar pressures face church leaders.
Age-related change occurs throughout the life cycle, but in Australia “ageing” is culturally assumed to begin between about 55 and 65 years, often coinciding with retirement. Ageing impacts people in diverse ways and can be unpredictable and stressful. Life experiences, attitude and psychospiritual factors all have a bearing on one’s outlook as the existential “autumn” and “winter” of life set in. For some, ageing can be crushing and soul-destroying experience.
Scripture accepts the transitory nature of youth and reflects frankly the problems and issues we face as we age. At the same time, it presents older persons as dignified, venerable and wise; longevity as a reward for virtuous living; and advanced age as a gift from God. Early Christian communities were led by “elders” – older men and women who possessed a wealth of knowledge and skill built over a lifetime of experience. Ageing community members received special respect and care, and developing leaders were coached and mentored by their elders, including the pastoral care of older persons.
Throughout Scripture, life involves positive development and change, and the idea of permanent retirement is unknown. Ageing is divinely intentional and part of what it means to be a human person. The capacity to “do” things is not the definitive measure for determining someone’s worth and value.
To reflect on passages such as Genesis 3:19, Exodus 20:12, Proverbs 3:1-2 and 16:31 is to recognise how far we have drifted culturally and theologically from the image of ageing as a sign of wisdom, long life as a symbol of blessing, and grey hair as glorious.
What can you, and your church, do to swim against these cultural trends that threaten to swamp and impoverish our community life?
Rev Rod Benson is Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney.