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.

He liveth long who liveth well

Men and women in England are living longer, according to a report from Public Health England. Men aged over 65 can expect to live to the age of 84, and women to the age of 86. In North East England, Scotland and Wales, however, the situation is not so good where men cannot expect to live quite so long. Most deaths in England now occur when people are over 80 years old, so the report emphasised the importance of not only length of life, but also quality of life. One factor, they said, in ensuring a better quality of life is developing a healthy lifestyle.

In Psalm 90, written more than 3000 years ago, Moses says, “The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet the best of them is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass away, and we fly away.” All those years ago people lived a similar length of time to people today and they also experienced the troubles and sorrows of life. Like us, too, they realised that time passes so quickly. As we get older, time seems to pass even more quickly!

The challenge for us all, however old we are, is to use the days of our life well. In Psalm 90 Moses prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” In the Bible, wisdom is not so much about intellectual ability as about practical daily living. The wise person puts the principles God teaches us, and has written in our hearts, into practice. Solomon, who was a very wise king, wrote, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity.”

The wise person also thinks, not only of this world, but of the world to come. Horatius Bonar, the 19th century Scottish hymn writer, who lived to the age of 81, wrote a hymn which is not often sung today. “He liveth long who liveth well; all other life is short and vain; He liveth longest who can tell of living most for heavenly gain. He liveth long who liveth well; all else is being flung away; He liveth longest who can tell of true things truly done each day. Fill up each hour with what will last; buy up the moments as they go; The life above, when this is past, is the ripe fruit of life below.”

Bearing fruit in old age

The place we are born has very significant implications for how long we will live. According to the United Nations average life expectancy for all countries in the world is 67. In Japan it is 82, whilst in Swaziland and Mozambique it is only 39. Many countries in Africa have a low level of life expectancy because of high infant mortality rates and high levels of HIV/AIDS. In Britain the fact that people are living longer is creating a crisis in the cost of funding pensions and caring for old people.

At a personal level, those who have retired face the question of how they spend their retirement years. On average men live 13 years after they retire and women live 22 years. It is a significant proportion of our lives. Some have adequate pensions whilst others face financial hardships. Many people assume that living to a great age is only a blessing but don’t realise that all the extra years come at the end of life when health and strength may not be good.

So how should we face the later years of life? Some employers provide retirement planning seminars which focus mainly on finance. These seminars are usually provided for those who have an adequate pension and who hope to enjoy a good lifestyle in retirement. But there are other very important considerations which affect us all. One important question is, “For what am I living?” Another is, “What is my hope for the future?” Financial advisers rightly emphasise the importance of preparing for retirement when we are young. Preparing for the later years of life and for eternity is even more important..

In Psalm 92 we read that the righteous “will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.’” Our focus throughout our lives needs to be on God and on living in a personal relationship with him. I remember a lady who suddenly went blind at the age of 68. She lived, as a widow, into her 90s. Yet I never heard her complain. She was always thankful and took a lively interest in those around her, especially the new babies whose cries she heard. She was a wonderful example of what the psalmist meant. She trusted God, even when things were very tough, and she drew her strength from him. He was her Rock!