Care for the aged

Duncan Macpherson

careThis article considers the varying experiences of growing old between countries, social classes, and individual circumstances. The approach is both personal and political. The personal is addressed through examination of scriptural texts and the political focuses on the care of the aged as a justice issue demanding social and economic change as advocated by Pope Francis in his call that we should become 'the Church of the poor'.

Duncan Macpherson is a retired lecturer in Theology at St Mary's University, Twickenham.

'Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent' (Psalm 70.9). This is the plea of the elderly, who fear being forgotten and rejected (Pope Francis).

Calling someone person 'chronologically gifted' is a humorous and fashionable synonym for being old! For some old people, age is a gift. The author of this chapter is one of them. A contented, active and reasonably healthy 78-year-old, living in a London suburb, a retired academic, in part-time pastoral ministry as a Permanent Deacon in the Catholic Diocese of Westminster. Happily married with four adult children, twelve grandchildren and a great grandchild, he is also blessed with good health. He is aware that this so far happy experience of aging is a very personal one and that no one experience of aging is typical. The elderly may perceive old age as a gift or a curse-or both! In the Scriptures we find a recognition of this ambivalence. Before a developed idea of immortality or resurrection was clearly formulated, the Hebrews saw long life as a reward for a virtuous life. The old were to be reverenced as the repositories of wisdom, deserving respect and contentment and enjoying the blessing of grandchildren. The Old Testament also recognised the other reality of growing enfeeblement and nearness to death. Today an examination of varying life expectancies and of changing social attitudes to the elderly echoes this biblical understanding of age.

Death and decline
In the face of death, the enigma of human existence reaches its climax. Man is not only the victim of pain and the progressive deterioration of his body; he is also, and more deeply, tormented by the fear of final extinction.1

Of course, for the Christian, every day of life is gift, even if the final years are blighted by ill health or personal tragedy. Any 'chronologically gifted' person, even the most fortunate, is also aware of the dark side of the giftedness of age: the body is weakening; the mind less agile; memory lapses become more frequent and the prospect of death more real. And the modern realities of aging, with varying life-expectancies and changing social attitudes towards aging all find echoes in the biblical understanding of age.

Life before death
The prospect of death in the earlier strata of the Old Testament does not offer any clear promise of heavenly reward: 'The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence' (Ps. 115.17). 'Silence' here translates the Hebrew She'ol: a dark half world marked by the absence of God. Thus, Qoheleth advises, 'Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in She'ol, to which you are going' (Ecclus. 9.10).

The reward of the just is seen as long life: 'Those who love me, I will deliver...with long life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation' (Ps. 91.14-16). By contrast, 'the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days' (Ps. 55.23b) and 'the fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short...' (Prov. 10.27). And, according to the Bible, long life often meant just that. Noah is recorded as living 950 years (Gen. 9.29), 19 years less than Methuselah (Gen. 5.27). After the flood, life spans became shorter: Abraham living a mere 175 years (Gen. 25.7), Moses 120 (Deut. 34:5) and King David  -  perhaps reflecting his uneven moral record  -  only 70.

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