Growing old

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.

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

Thoughts on being a parent

On a recent visit to Vietnam the Duke of Cambridge was interviewed on a popular English-language talk show. He was asked about being a father to Prince George and Princess Charlotte. He said, “There’s been wonderful highs and wonderful lows. But I’ve struggled at times. The alteration from being a single, independent man to going into marriage, and then having children, is life-changing. George is a right little rascal sometimes. He keeps me on my toes, but he’s a sweet boy. And Charlotte, bearing in mind I haven’t had a sister … so having a daughter is a very different dynamic!”

Since he has had children William has worried more about the future and hopes his children will inherit a better world. He said, “When you have something or someone in your life to give the future to, I think it focuses the mind more about what you are giving them. Are you happy that you have done all you can to leave the world in a good state? People are living with an enormous amount of stuff that they don’t necessarily need. I would like George and Charlotte to grow up being a little bit more simple in their aspirations and outlook and just looking after those around them and treating others as they would like to be treated themselves.”

The Duke’s concerns are shared by many parents. What kind of world will we hand on to our children and grandchildren? How can we prepare them for the future? When he first came to the throne, King Solomon asked God for wisdom and discernment so that he would be able to rule his people well. Some of the wisdom God gave him related to family life. Solomon knew the importance of teaching his children God’s truths and being an example to them.

The things Solomon taught his children provide a sure guide for the Duke of Cambridge and all parents. Solomon wrote, “My child, never forget the things I have taught you. Store my commands in your heart. If you do this, you will live many years, and your life will be satisfying. Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. Then you will find favour with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation. Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”

Honour your father and mother

The number of older people in our society is increasing. 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. In 20 years time there will be more than 15 million, growing to 19 million by 2050. Within this total, the number of very old people is growing even faster. Now there are 3 million people aged over 80. This is projected to double by 2030 and reach 8 million by 2050. Today one-in-six of the UK population is over 65; by 2050 it will be one-in-four.

The average length of life is increasing significantly. A man born in 1981 might expect to live to 84 years, but for a boy born today it is 91. Women can expect to live, on average, 4 years longer than men. However, those who live to greater ages do not necessarily enjoy good health in their later years. This presents a massive challenge of caring for the elderly, both in terms of cost and quality of care. Recent cases have revealed serious mistreatment of elderly people in care homes and these problems are likely to increase.

God’s plan for our care throughout our lives is the family. The love between marriage partners is the foundation. In his Bible commentary Matthew Henry reflects on the account of the creation of men and women, and the institution of marriage, in Genesis Chapter 2. He writes, “The woman came out of a man’s ribs. Not from his feet to be walked on, not from his head to be superior, but from his side to be equal, under his arm to be protected, and next to his heart to be loved.” The mutual love of their parents provides a secure environment in which children can grow up and be cared for.

In later life the family can also provide care. The early Christian churches cared for widows, especially those who had no-one to care for them. But they also emphasised the importance of the family caring for their older members. Paul wrote, “If a widow 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 very much.” It is a privilege to be able to care for our parents, who have given us so much. It is an even greater privilege to be cared for in our latter years by our children and grandchildren and to be surrounded by their love.