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.

When mind and memory flee

More people than ever before are facing the challenge of dementia, either in themselves or in someone they love. There are around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and it is estimated that 225,000 will develop dementia this year. The increase in the number of people suffering from dementia is linked to the fact that we are living longer than ever before. The risk of dementia increases with age. One-in-three of those over 85 years old have dementia.

The demands on the immediate family of caring for a loved one with dementia are very great and sometimes there is limited support. It is very distressing when someone we love seems to have become a different person and doesn’t recognise us or other family members and close friends. Carers, often a husband or wife, become very tired and may find it difficult to think positively about the person with dementia. Caring can be a lonely task when you can’t go out and fewer people call in because they don’t know how to react. Carers experience a living grief because they feel they have lost the person they love and may feel guilty if they experience relief when the person dies.

My wife’s mother suffered from dementia and she and her husband lived with us until she died. It was very sad when she couldn’t recognise her family, whom she loved deeply. She was often anxious and fearful, especially when her husband went out, even for a short time. Sometimes she misunderstood situations and could become difficult to deal with. Yet, it was encouraging that she remembered some things very clearly. When I read Psalm 23 to her she would say the words with me which she had memorised when she was a child. When my wife sang familiar hymns to her it comforted her.

As we face the challenges of life we need the comfort and help that God alone gives. Even when we forget him, he never forgets us. One hymn says, “And when these failing lips grow dumb, and mind and memory flee, when Thou shalt in Thy kingdom come, Jesus, remember me.” A modern hymn writer, Mary Louise Bringle, wrote a hymn for a friend whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, “When memory fades and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused, speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts by pain and fear abused. O God of life and healing peace, empower us with patient courage, by your grace infused.”

The beauty and splendour of autumn

Early on the Sunday morning after the clocks went back I drove to North Wales. It was a sunny morning and the autumn leaves were resplendent. The yellows, browns and reds were brilliant in the early morning sun. Scattered amongst them was the occasional green fir tree. It made me realise afresh that God has made our earth a very beautiful place and I thanked him for his wonderful kindness to all of us who live on this little planet.

The autumn colours remind us that the long, warm days of summer are passing and the dark days of winter lie ahead. The regularity of the seasons points us to the faithfulness of God. He has promised, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” So we know that winter will not last for ever, however dark and cold it may be, but that springtime will come and the trees and flowers will come to life again.

There are also seasons in our lives. The early years of childhood are full of hope and promise. The energy and enthusiasm of children hold out great potential for their future lives. Childhood gives way to adult years when physical and mental powers are at their height. It is a time for striving to achieve our full potential at home and work. Loving families and homes provide a secure and loving environment for the next generation to be born and thrive.

Then comes the autumn of our lives when mind and body are not so strong and grey hairs appear. In the early senior years there can be a beauty and poise that make it seem that things may continue as they are but, in our hearts, we know that our lives are moving inevitably to their appointed end.

Solomon, who was legendary for his wisdom, wrote, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.” It is best to remember God and entrust our lives to him when we are young so that he is at the centre of all we do. But we can also draw near to him in the autumn of our life and find in him the peace we need now and the hope we need for the future. His beautiful creation proclaims that he exists and encourages us to seek him and find him.

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!