“Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:32).
Celebrated Annually on 1 October, International Day of Older Persons was passed by the United Nations General Assembly on 14 December 1990, which declared 1 October to be the International Day of Older Persons.
There are currently around 700 million people over the age of 60. It is predicted that by 2050, this figure will have risen to 2 billion. These figures have prompted a lot of attention and various initiatives have been started to try and address the problems that will arise.
Ageism and the Church
Ageism is the mentality that puts you down in so many ways simply because you’ve reached a certain calendar age. Ageism is the tendency to buy into a cultural stereotype and cultural behaviour that relegates older adults to what feels like second-class citizenship. Ageism has come to be understood as a form of discrimination that takes structural and institutional forms, as well as inter- and intra-personal ones.
Ageism happens in our society. It happens in our communities. It happens in our churches. Believe me, it happens in Manningham Uniting Church. And it can happen within our own hearts and minds, often in ways we are unaware.
Ageism irrigates a lie. That lie is that older persons are not worth as much as younger persons.
Joan Chittister offers a pithy and thoughtful essay on Ageism in her 2008 book, ‘The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.’ She wisely observes that while stereotypes absolutize age-related characteristics, persons who are externally old tend to smash those stereotypical barriers with their vitality.
Ageism — and its personal impact — is a reality shared by almost every older adult, although many people are socialized not to recognize it. Based on deeply ingrained, negative stereotypes of what old people are really like, ageism is used to rationalize discrimination and to confuse our discussions about rights and privilege.
Unfortunately, ageism is widespread not only in the marketplaces but also in religious circles. We hear words such as, “The church is dying because we have so many old people in the church.” “If old people would just get out of the way.” “If older adults just accepted change.” “Either older adults should get with the program, or they should leave the church.”
An Ageing and Dying Church
In many Uniting Church congregations, older adults comprise a large proportion of the total church membership. Some of these older adults have been church members for many years, while others may be relatively new to either the congregation they attend or to the Christian faith. The presence of these ‘seasoned’ adults can be a blessing to most churches. Unfortunately, in some congregations, older adults may be taken for granted or simply ignored.
The prevailing myth about aging – that it is nothing but slow and steady decline – is a by-product of our culture that worships youth and abhors getting old. Aging in our cultural context is ‘bad’ and old is ‘ugly.’
Some church leaders may believe a crisis exists within the church because there are too many older adults. In our society, the image of an ageing congregation is often seen as outdated, close-minded, stuck in tradition, and a hindrance to church vitality and church growth.
Not having a growing membership of young people is viewed by many ministers and church members as a failure in mission and outreach. We all want to have increasing numbers of people under 35 years of age in our congregations.
Overcoming Ageism Together
Ageism is hard to overcome because it exists everywhere and is deeply rooted in our culture and society. It causes church leaders to believe that the church has too many older adults and causes churches to neglect the spiritual and emotional well-being of older adults.
Here are examples of ageism in churches (This is a good check list for us in Manningham Uniting Church):
An older adult ministry is planned without the involvement of older adults
Church leaders believe that the only way the church can be innovative and growing is to have seniors step aside and let younger people be fully in charge of decision-making
Facilities are not accessible to accommodate the needs of ageing persons
Church leaders believe they know what’s best for older adults without consulting them
Church leaders hire staff to develop ministries for various age groups but ignore ministry with older adults
Church leaders’ budget for various age group ministries—except older adult ministries
Church leaders regularly ignore issues of ageing and older adult concerns in sermons, prayers, and hymn selections
Church leaders focus solely on young families and ignore older members
Those ministering with youth/young families speak poorly of older adults and often dismiss their years of experience
Look down on older adults that struggle with new technology
When we deny our own ageing as an older adult, that’s ageism! Aging is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be embraced. It is a natural lifelong process that includes gains and losses. Every age and stage of life has its own unique challenges and assets.
To overcome Ageism in our congregations we need everyone (young and not so young) to think creatively, re-imagine congregational vitality, and to re-frame ageing.
Parker Palmer, author of ‘On the Brink of Everything’, wrote, “we need to reframe ageing as a passage of discovery and engagement, not decline and inaction.” The church can be blessed indeed when older members have an opportunity to capture a new vision, new purpose, and meaning for living.
We should avoid using demeaning language concerning older adults. For example, recognize that older members are home-centred or homebound, not shut-ins.
Reframe program titles. For example, caregiving programs should not be titled ‘Parenting Your Parents’ but rather, ‘Caring for Your Parents’ or ‘Managing Your Parents’ Care’.
As followers of Jesus, we are all called to help change attitudes in our congregations about aging. We need to first recognise the negative attitudes we may have about our own ageing and that of older adults in general. We can teach our congregation by example and serve as advocates on behalf of ageing and older adults.
When we reframe ageing – ours and others – we are challenging the cultural myths of growing older. By reframing aging, we see older adulthood not as an age of liability but as an age of opportunity (sounds like a good title for a book!).
We All Need to Speak Up
Ageism is often a sneaky foe! It might be disguised as solicitous concern (“Can I help you up the stairs?”) or as impatient decision-making, or any number of subtle messages. Don’t let what you feel as an ageist remark or action go without challenge.
I believe ageism not only inhibits and distorts our understanding of older people; it also distorts and disrupts our own journey of ageing in Christ.
We need to remember that we share a common dignity created in the image of the One who breathed life into humanity. Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney, in Aging, wrote, “The care of the old for the young is no different from the care of the young for the old. Real care takes place when we are no longer separated by the walls of fear but have found each other on the common ground of the human condition, which is mortal, but therefore, very, very, precious.” Amen.
Let’s together pledge against Ageism and make sure that we do our bit:
“We, members of Manningham Uniting Church stand for a world without ageism where all people of all ages are valued and respected and their contributions are acknowledged. We commit to speak out and take action to ensure older people can participate on equal terms with others in all aspects of life.”
On Sunday, 2 October 2022 after both services we will celebrate ‘International Day of Older Persons’ with a lunch together.
Swee Ann Koh
 Read this article: ‘A Methodist church’s revitalization plan raises questions for older members’ – https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/01/22/church-allegedly-asked-older-members-leave-leaders-say-that-didnt-actually-happen/