Respect Your Elders

Standing against the tide that sweeps seniors out of the mainstream and into loneliness and isolation

"0nce you get over the hill, the only way to go is down — and you pick up speed on the way." This greeting card note may tickle the funny bone, but there is nothing humorous about the way our society treats the elderly. How often do we read about a senior, forgotten and alone, who has died in his home and is not discovered for several days? Or the maiden aunt who sits abandoned in a dreary nursing home with no visitors for months or even years?

The prevailing view of contemporary North America honors only those who enjoy the strength of youth. The job market becomes increasingly geared toward the young as senior employees are offered golden handshakes. As physical, mental and emotional systems begin to decline, we are less likely to maintain a rapid pace, and some may no longer seem as "productive" in the material sense. Though past generations have taught youngsters to respect their elders, this outlook has become passé, and the downward trend of disrespecting and dishonoring the elderly has become the prevailing attitude.

How far you go in life," George Washington Carver taught, "depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in life, you will have been all of these.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the population of people 85 and older will increase by 33.2 percent between 2000 and 2010. As vital members of our community, they deserve respect and honor, not neglect or humiliation. They possess life experience (both positive and negative) that can help others.

Far too often, the majority of the population views retirees as worthless, no longer contributors to the world at large. Tragically, too many of our churches support this impression, relegating seniors of their congregations to roles of ushers, volunteers and bulletin folders, without taking advantage of the wisdom and experience the elderly have gained.

Ageism has become the justifiable prejudice in a humanistic worldview. While racial distinctions or gender issues are typically off-limits, segregation because of how long someone has lived still provides a "reason" to discriminate. Senior discounts and token privileges don't offset the reality that these individuals are often set apart and neglected.

God's view
What does the Bible have to say about the elderly? The sanctity of human life provides a foundation stone in building a biblical worldview regarding aging. Parents can speak with their children about celebrated biblical characters who lived long lives.

Caleb was 85 when he told Joshua, "I'm just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then [45 years before]." He asked to be given the hill country in spite of the fortified cities of the Anakites. "The LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said," Caleb marched forth successfully (Joshua 14:6-15).

But physically vital senior citizens aren't the only ones featured in Scripture. Luke tells about Simeon who saw baby Jesus in the temple courts and praised God for allowing his aged eyes to see His salvation, "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32). Luke also wrote about 84-year-old widow Anna who never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying (Luke 2:37). Job asks the questions, "Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?" (Job 12:12).

In the fall of 2004, I took a position as associate administrator of a continuing care retirement community. Covenant Village is made up of more than 200 apartments, along with an assisted living building and a nursing facility, each housing up to 50 residents, all on one campus. As my wife and I have come to know our residents, we have been privileged to meet delightful friends, older and still vital. They continue living as children of the King they have just lived longer than other children. The discernment and perspective they bring to discussions come from a lifetime of experience.

Teaching respect
In our mobile society, generations have often been divided by distance. How can parents develop a return to a "respect your elders" mentality? Deliberately encourage interaction with other generations, whether in your church, your neighborhood or your community. With the rapidly growing senior population, it should not be difficult for your family to spend time with the elderly. Seek activities at your local retirement community. Invite the retired couple down the street to a barbecue and game night with your children. Encourage your children to assist a neighbor with her yard work — the resulting harvest may be both flowers and friendship.

One of my new friends from Covenant Village communicated her attitude as we shared lunch. "We should never stop learning, never stop caring, never stop loving our neighbors — regardless of what happens to us." Her words impacted me strongly because they came from the perspective of 93 years. She has encountered speed bumps in recent years: her husband's death, estrangement from her son, heart problems, hearing loss, two hip replacements. ("But I'm amazed at how much stronger these artificial ones are than my original parts," she quips.)

Stand against the tide that sweeps seniors out of the mainstream and into loneliness and isolation. Instead, reach out to them as members of the family of God. As Moses wrote in Leviticus 19:32: "Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God." Learn from those who have traveled farther down the highway of life; it is a path we will all walk — and none of us wants to walk it alone.

"How far you go in life," George Washington Carver taught, "depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in life, you will have been all of these."


Taken from Focus on the Family magazine, January, 2006.
Article copyright © 2006, Focus on the Family.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission

Chuck Johnson is the former editorial director for Focus on the Family. He now serves as associate administrator at Covenant Village of Turlock, Calif., one of 14 Covenant Retirement Communities
across the country.