Given the headlines associated with older people, even before the pandemic, it may not be surprising to discover that the last five years has seen a steep rise in ageism in the UK.
The government's recent announcement of the Health and Social Care levy to help address funding of social care has perhaps reinforced the perception that older people are a drain on society, with many expressing concern about the impact this will have on younger generations.
You might even observe negative attitudes towards ageing amongst your church family and Christian friends. So why, when we have the certain hope and future of eternal life with God as followers of Jesus, do we fear the process of growing old — and how do we tackle it?
It's worth remembering that ageism isn't just about judging others based on their age, it is also about how we view our own ageing. New research has revealed that over half of UK adults now fear ageing more as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic – even for those who identify Christianity as their religion.
Five years ago, only 22% of adults were afraid of ageing, whereas now 42% say they fear ageing when asked the same question — a 91% relative change over half a decade.
As the CEO of a Christian charity that oversees care homes and independent housing across the country, I am only too aware of the common belief that as you grow older, you have less to give. Seemingly those in their later years have less purpose and therefore less value, which informs the way society – and even Christians - view the older generation. It can also shape the way older people are treated in their local church body.
I frequently run sessions in churches about how we might better care for our older people. Almost without fail, an older person will approach me at the end and describe how they were encouraged to step down from a position because of their age.
Yes, there are some things you can do as a younger person that aren't as easy or possible when you get older. But this is only half the picture. The Bible is one of the most age inclusive books ever written. God gives incredibly important roles to both the old and the young. Abraham and his wife Sarah began a nation despite being "advanced in years" (Genesis 18:11). Scripture tells us Moses was 120 years old when he died, yet his eye was undimmed and his vigour unabated (Deuteronomy 34:7). John was in his 90s when he wrote Revelation. These were not people who God saw as being 'past' having a purpose, but people He saw as key to His plans. And we know God never changes.
Older people do rely on the younger generations, but it's not a one-way street. Younger people benefit from the wisdom and experience of older people, something I noted often, even during the pandemic. During the anxiety of the pandemic, our residents have drawn alongside their carers and relatives and brought peace. This peace comes from having weathered crises before. Many have lost spouses and loved ones and have brought comfort and understanding in this time of grief and loss.
We also see this in the spiritual wisdom that older people bring. I have seen older ladies comfort carers in the tragedy of miscarriage and come alongside a loved one's shocking and painful diagnosis. They don't rush in with their own experience or solution when a trial or grief is shared with them, they listen and comfort. This is the beautiful fruit of maturity and experience. The spiritual maturity that comes with years is something that the Bible holds in great esteem. To have walked with the Lord and grown to know Him through that time is the gift of years. Job 12:12 says, "Wisdom is with the aged and understanding in length of days."
It is this understanding of the mutual benefits that can exist between older and younger generations, as described in the Bible and borne out of our experience, that has driven our vision for the national renewal programme. It launches with the celebration of the opening of Middlefields House in Wiltshire in October. Organised into households of twelve, residents will live like a family and will be given opportunity to contribute to life in the home. The positives of older age will be present, encouraged and celebrated alongside the very best care and active emotional and spiritual support.
The home is designed to facilitate the residents contributing to intergenerational community and discipleship with a coffee shop, hair and beauty salon and children's playground that will all be open to the public, along with rooms that can be hired out by local churches and community groups. Re-discovering the value of being older requires an understanding of ageing and increased interaction between older and younger people.
As Christians, we are often guilty of not valuing and plumbing the depths of the older saints around us. We don't call on their wisdom or lean on their prayer enough and perhaps if we did that more, our attitudes towards ageing would begin to shift, we would become less fearful and we would value older people more.
Living a fulfilled life does not have a sell-by date and growing old is not something to be afraid of. Intergenerational community, discipleship and meaningful relationships are an essential part of countering the increased fear in ageing. Not because the old need the young, but because we all need each other. The effects of ageing may be the result of the worlds brokenness, but the new creation we were made for will be intergenerational.
Stephen Hammersley is CEO at Pilgrims' Friend Society, a Christian charity that supports older people to live fulfilled later lives in their residential care homes and independent living housing schemes in England and Scotland. The charity also works alongside churches, inspiring and equipping them to work in the community with older people. To find out more go to https://www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk/ or follow them on social media @PilgrimsFS