This International Women’s Day (8 March), I’m raising a glass to the wisdom of older women. In a world in which billionaires are expending their efforts on the quest to stay eternally young, it was a joy to watch Joni Mitchell at last month’s Grammys.

The 80-year-old singer-songwriter performed ‘Both sides now’ with all the wisdom and grit of a woman who has spent 60 years honing her craft, overcoming hurdles such as a brain aneurysm in 2015. 

Some weeks before, I marvelled at the sheer athletic ability of Angela Rippon, as the 79-year-old gave some of the younger competitors on Strictly Come Dancing a run for their money. 

Our societal obsession with youth is such that seeing older women in the limelight is noticeable. We’re not used to grey hair and wrinkles; we give a double-take to laughter lines and crow’s feet. When I was growing up, it felt like women disappeared when they reached the age of 50, forced to step aside for younger models.

It’s not just older women that we don’t value, but old age in general. To be old is to be past it, irrelevant, ‘a burden’. I’m increasingly nervous of the assisted dying debate and the (very real) consequence that changing UK law could lead to people ending their lives prematurely so as not to be a ‘burden’ on their families. 

The Bible attributes great worth to old age and experience

It’s time we placed more value on old age, rather than dwelling on projections that an ageing population will put greater strain on the nation’s healthcare.

The Bible attributes great worth to old age and experience. “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old”, we read in Job 12:12 (NLT). Christian organisations such as Faith in Later Life and Pilgrims’ Friend Society are leading the charge when it comes to ensuring that older people are valued and able to thrive, rather than forgotten. The former exists to inspire and equip Christians to reach, serve and empower older people; while the latter supports older people to live fulfilled later lives in residential care homes and independent living schemes. 

In much of Africa, including the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria where I’m from, great reverence is given to a community’s elders. The author Chinua Achebe (also Igbo) said: “When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.” I witnessed this last month, when relatives from around the world travelled to Nigeria to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday. The images shared over WhatsApp gave a taste of the celebratory atmosphere; a series of events and hundreds of people honouring my grandma. It was epic. 

Like Joni Mitchell, my granny too has lived. She has experienced loss, war, grief and joy. In these unsettling times, who better to turn to than those who have experienced so much of what has gone before? In my family’s culture, our elders are not a burden; we roll out the red carpet for them. We do not shut them away. Perhaps we need a shift in perspective in the UK. To see older people not as a burden to bear, but those whose presence teaches us how to be a community who can support each other in all phases of our lives, even until the end. 

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