Two memories continue to haunt my nights and days. An old woman, bent and broken by crippling arthritis, spoke to our Sunday School assembly on the words of Jesus after He fed the multitudes: "Gather up the fragments left, so that nothing be left." She told the church that many old people feel like left-over fragments, unused and unwanted. She pleaded with us, "Gather up and use the talents of older people."
Recently, while visiting in a hospital, the charge nurse asked me to see an old woman who had sunk into speechless depression. Her sister had bluntly told her that she was going to a nursing home. As I tried to console her, she stared at me with fear and anger, and a tear slithered down her aged cheek.
What could the church have done for either of these older people?
Jeremiah went down to the potter's house with heavy heart. The nation, Judah, was headed for ruin; her repeated refusals to be faithful to the covenant insured her doom. Like the old, marred clay in the potter's house, Israel seemed beyond redemption.
Yet a miracle of sorts happened before his eyes. The potter did not discard the old clay. He began to rework it on his wheel, until it took on new shape. Then Jeremiah realized that Yahweh was not going to discard old Judah, but, on the wheel of history, the nation would be reshaped and redirected.
Old People Feel Like Ruined Clay
A major plight of the elderly in our society is that they do feel unwanted and unused. It must have been an elderly psalmist who prayed, "I am forgotten, as good as dead in their hearts, something discarded" (Psalms 31:12
, Jersualem Bible). The aging are God's prophets in our midst, reminding us of our mortality, but we will not acknowledge them. Not only are some shunted off and abandoned in nursing homes, but the majority are either bypassed or patronized by our youth-obsessed society.
Recently, I searched for some books on aging, and found none. The proprietor told me that she dared not place any books with the word "aging" on the shelves, for no one would buy them. The only book on the subject that did sell was You and Your Aging Parent
For many people who have defined themselves in terms of their work, retirement brings periods of depression and uselessness. The church needs to show its older people that identity (who we are) is more significant than work (what we do). Despite new and more liberal federal and state laws that eliminate mandatory retirement, people still retire at an early age. For those who live on limited incomes, any major health problem or exile to a nursing home could wipe out a lifetime of savings.
The church has not yet adequately ministered to its older people. Despite the "graying in the pews," the church has not been intentional about ministry to senior adults. At times we salve our conscience by organizing clubs for them, as if all old people want at the end of life is shuffleboard and checkers. Maggie Kuhn has well-named these efforts -- "playpens for the elderly." Patronizing our elderly is as bad as ignoring them. They need more than some geriatric version of a high school hangout.