“Sixty is the new fifty.” I am sure you have heard this adage. Due to modern medical advances and an increased emphasis upon good health practices in the last three decades, people are living healthier lives.
People are also living longer. The life expectancy at birth in 1950 was 68.2. In 1980, it had improved to 73.7. By 2003, life expectancy figures had stretched to 77.5. Prolonged life supports another trend in the population. Baby Boomers have been merging into the elderly subgroup for seven years now. Census data from 2000 and 2010 reveals a 2.2% increase of adults 60 and over, from 16.3% to 18.5%. Projections indicate that by 2030 persons over 65 will double the number in 2000, to 72 million.
To the individual dealing with the effects of aging, statistics make little difference. A woman told me the other night that it was downhill after 60. She is 68 and maintains an active lifestyle of aerobics and yoga classes, but arthritis and worn out joints defy resistance. Hair coloring and cosmetic procedures may disguise the onset of geriatrics. Replacement parts may increase mobility. But the body wears out – more slowly for some than others, but inevitably and irreversibly.
I have long enjoyed excellent health. My genetic profile has contributed to a restrained process of physical maturity. Attempts to guess my age usually inflate my self-delusion that aging might be absent from my DNA. A few weeks ago, I met a young pastor at a conference and he asked me if I was enjoying the empty nest. “What are you trying to say,” I snapped back with a smile. He paused and said, “Just that you look very wise.”
I have been thinking that we need a theology of aging. (Boomers think like this. No one else could possibly need it, until we do.) Then I discovered that people have been writing on the subject already. Some of the titles are appealing: The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies, and You’re Old, I’m Old … Get Used To It!: Twenty Reasons Why Growing Old is Great.
Growing Old In Christ (Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith G. Meador) was written in 2003 and was the first serious theological reflection on aging. “In a full-orbed discussion of the subject, eighteen first-rate Christian thinkers survey biblical and historical perspectives on aging, looking at aging in the modern world, and describe the Christian practice of growing old.” (from the Book Description on Amazon)
According to the book, loneliness leads the list of characteristics of aging. Friends have died or relocated to an assisted-care facility, creating an absence of any confirmation of identity. Making new friends can lead to superficial relationships that avoid the emotionally draining task of transparency.
The accumulation of relational losses can embezzle a sense of meaning and purpose. Staying connected to modern society requires energy, stamina and adaptability, qualities that dissipate with age. This disconnect from a fast-paced culture can leave older adults disoriented and wondering what contribution they could possibly make to younger people.
The writers of Growing Old in Christ argue that the Church resides in the Christian story. A story builds on a succession of events and past events play critical roles to the present and future. Older adults provide the memory for the Church, retelling the work of God in previous chapters and relating it to God’s movement in the present. Growing old should translate into growing wise, restraining successive generations from straying from the story.
A society plugged into the latest technology does not value the experience of age. The enthusiasm of youth does not guarantee clear-sighted direction. Hauerwas contends that “there is no substitute for some old people in the church being wise. Someone must know how to tell the stories well.” Without them, the story can mutate into something very different from Christ and his gospel.
Youth also need models of virtue. Older adults should never allow a retirement culture to entice them into a retirement strategy for the spiritual life. It is not in the plan. Growing old still means growing. Aging should polish the gems of a well-lived life so that they shine even brighter. People always need to be loved. Sinners always need the redemptive message. A lost world always needs demonstrations of the life of Christ and his kingdom.
My favorite model for aging is Caleb. This man first entered the promised land with eleven other representatives of Israel. When the twelve returned only Caleb and Joshua reported to Moses that they could take the land as God had promised. The other ten men said the armies and giants of the land would repel any invasion and wipe out Israel’s army.
Forty years later, when Joshua led Israel into Canaan, Caleb’s faith had grown with his age. Now 85, he appealed to Joshua, “I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim [giants] were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.” (Joshua 14:11-12)
May his tribe multiply in our generation!