Longevity is one of the greatest achievements of our modern era. The United Nations calls it one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century. Advances in health care are a major factor in lengthening our lives. Over the past 20 years the number of people in Britain aged 100, or over, has quadrupled. There are now 2.7 million people in Britain aged over 80 and life expectancy continues to increase. But increasing length of life does not guarantee quality of life or make us more ready to face death and eternity.
The increase in life expectancy is bringing major challenges to our society, especially in caring for older people. A recent report highlighted a shortage of care home beds. In 5 years there will be 42,000 fewer care home beds than are needed. This raises big questions for those who are elderly, for their families and for our society. Our modern “progressive” society is changing. The influence of churches has significantly decreased and secular thinking is more common. An increasing number of families are reluctant to take on the care of their elderly parents.
The Bible encourages us all to consider how we live and how we prepare for our old age. We all need to lay down the essential foundations for our later years. In Psalm 71 the psalmist says to God, “My life is an example to many, because you have been my strength and protection. That is why I can never stop praising you; I declare your glory all day long. And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside. Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.” Older people can be a great example to the younger generation. In Psalm 92 we read, “The godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”
The early Christians lovingly cared for widows but also encouraged their families to care for them. “Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God.” When we reach the end of our lives, as all of us must, it is a great blessing to be surrounded by our loved ones as we leave this world and pass into the presence of God.
As a result of advances in medical knowledge people in Britain are living longer than ever before. Many are also enjoying a higher quality of life than previous generations have known. But the increasing number of people is also creating big challenges, especially in providing care for elderly people. The increasing costs of quality long term care do not seem to be sustainable.
Throughout our lives we all need care and God has provided the family as the primary place of care. A new born baby is totally dependent on the loving care of its parents, especially its mother. Without her care a baby would die. When children are growing up they need the loving care of their parents to provide a secure environment in which they can thrive and develop. Children who do not have that security and love often experience serious problems in later life. God has also ordained marriage as a relationship in which love and security can be found. The traditional marriage vows express this well as mutual promises are made, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love honour and cherish, till God separates us by death.”
When problems arise in the family it is important for the wider family and the community to care. In his letter James writes, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” It seems that in the ancient world, as in today’s world, it was often the husband who died first and the wife who needed to be cared for. When my mother and my wife’s mother and father needed care in their latter years it was a privilege, and a challenge, to be able to open our home to them as they came to live with us.
Whatever our age it is important to remember the living God, who sent his Son, Jesus, into this world to give us hope. In Psalm 73 the writer expresses his faith in God, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.”