By: Henry Simmons
Why do older adults—not individually but as a whole—evoke negative reactions?
Our personal stories of deeply loved and admired individual older adults cannot overcome the hard fact that most of us—myself included at age 74—cannot answer the fundamental question of what are old people for, even when our attitudes and actions reveal our implicit answer, “Nothing.”
Where have older adults made a difference? In agrarian cultures longevity of memory was critical in understanding the vagaries of weather and crops. Grandmother care, from an evolutionary perspective, was critical in the development of language, stories, myths, and religion; it has an important cultural function. These and other roles may, in some places and cultures, still be vital.
But what is our culture’s understanding of older adults? Margaret Guilette observes that our culture has bought into the notion of aging as a woeful wait for death, characterized by unattractive physical decline (witness the popularity of Botox and cosmetic surgery) and social disdain. The word ‘age’ in contemporary parlance, she notes, often means nothing more than the evaporation of youth and the onset of inevitable, ghastly decay1.
We know this story from the inside. At some point in personal or collective chronology we reach the equivalent of “39 and holding.” Age is no longer progress; age is loss. There is a factual basis for this: we of the first world are dealing with an absolutely new “old age.” We will live long enough to die not of accident or infectious disease (still the case in most of the world) but of the failure of a major organ system in a weakened and compromised body.
Some find the opportunity for spiritual growth in dealing with loss and death. I think, for example, of John Yungblut’s On Hallowing One’s Diminishments (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #292, 1990), or Jane Marie Thibault’s, A Deepening Love Affair: The Gift of God in Later Life (Upper Room, 1998). I treasure these books. They have guided, challenged and comforted me.
But they do not get at the larger cultural question: “What are old people for?” This key question is seldom bluntly articulated and, worse, mostly unanswerable in and by our culture or the church.
We do love and cherish individual older adults in the church, of course. But we would prefer a congregation predominantly of families with young children. We see older adults as a group as a threat to the life of the church. As anecdotal evidence, in 15+ years of teaching congregational studies, my students and I did not study even one church with a deliberate and theologically based outreach to Boomers.
We, the church, have our own version of ageism and our own ageist rationale for wanting a congregation of young families. We prefer young couples with children to Baby Boomers because, we say, we need young children or our church will die. And yet here are demographic facts—in the metropolitan area in which I live (Richmond, VA), the number of people over 65 will outnumber school-age children by 2030. Everywhere in the USA, 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day. The percentage of the population “like us” dwindles every year.
A congregation of older adults might well be the end of church as we remember it from our youth (however romanticized that may be). That memory from our youth is powerful and will blind us to current demographics—if we let it. In the end, though, the question with which we must wrestle—the angel with whom we must wrestle through the night and who will leave us wounded—remains, “What are older adults for?”
Here’s what gives me some hope that we can resist the cultural metaphor of decline. Although not the first to raise the issues, we wrestled with gender, race and, to a lesser extent, sexual orientation and physical handicap. We are not yet where we want to be or should be. But we are able to talk about these realities without retreating into silence. Negative cultural narratives, widespread and pernicious as they may be, do not overwhelm these conversations.
The negative narratives of gender, race, sexual orientation and physical handicap were carried by the culture and bred into our bones so much so that we became unknowing carriers of these narratives. And yet we woke up. By the grace of God we woke up and spoke up and eventually stood up.
I see strong similarities and possibilities for a shift in attitudes and possible change in narratives about age-as-decline and church-as-young-families.
We, both young and old in the church, do not know the answer to the question: “What are old people for.” Even more telling, we do not even ask the question aloud in our churches. We cannot look to the culture for answers or even to ask the question. But we ourselves can begin a conversation that will free us and be leaven in our ageist society. We will witness that all life is holy.
In the end, it comes down to this: if we with our aging congregations don’t begin to ask and wrestle with the question, who will?
Here are some starter questions: Where is there a gathering of mindful old people? Where is the older stranger shown hospitality? Where are the hard-earned truths of elders valued and making a difference? Where do older adults share resources fearlessly? Where and to what are older adults witnessing with their lives? Where is the good news of God’s love being proclaimed in deeds to God’s oldest friends?
The task is not just to look for individuals who do these things (although that does lift the heart); nor is it about the church per se. The task is to find structures and institutions that do these things and that seem in some way replicable in our churches or that need support in our worlds.
In the end, it comes down to this: if we with our aging congregations don’t begin to ask and wrestle with these kinds of God questions, who will?
Henry Simmons is professor emeritus of Christian education at Union Presbyterian Seminary. His interests are Christian education, aging, congregational studies, and the environment. Most recently he co-wrote with James Fisher A Journey Called Aging: Challenges and Opportunities in Older Adulthood (Hayworth: Taylor & Francis: 2008) and with Anne Marie Dalton Ecotheology and the Practice of Hope (SUNY 2010). Current volunteer activities include helping third graders with reading, board work at Fan Free Clinic, and committee work at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center for racial reconciliation in the city.