In her famous poem, ‘Warning’ Jenny Joseph, then 29, saw old age as a time of non-conformity when she could behave outrageously. She would wear purple with a clashing red hat and learn to spit. Now she’s 85, I wonder if she’s done all those things, and if so, did anyone notice?
Because today’s older generation is unlike any other before it. It’s full of non-conformist Baby Boomers for a start. It’s also the largest in history; engaged, outspoken and supportive of others. Grandparents are helping the young with their mortgages and childcare, and in their 90s and 100s older people are abseiling, running races and organising events for charity. A survey by Age UK in 2014 showed they contributed £61bn to the economy through employment, informal caring and volunteering. A similar study by the Royal Voluntary Service concluded, ‘they are the glue that holds society together’.
The United Nations even designated 1st October this year as 'The International Day of Older Persons', with the title, “Stepping into the Future: Tapping the Talents, Contributions and Participation of Older Persons in Society”.
While secular organisations are pointing up the value of older people, many Christians don’t see it. A friend was describing how his church ran outreaches for the young, and I asked how it reached older people. “What would be the point,” he replied, “what would they bring?” When I pointed out that this was an ageist attitude, he was amazed. Because, like most of us, he had been drip fed ageism through so many channels all his life that he had absorbed it unconsciously, until it had become part of his mind-set.
Part of God’s plan
When God created the universe, he set in motion times and seasons and the ageing process. Old age was part of his plan from the beginning - that people should ripen to maturity, developing wisdom through a lifetime of experience and relationship with him, eventually enriching others with the attributes that have been honed over their lifetimes.
Dr William H Thomas, a gerontologist and Professor at the University of Maryland, wrote an award-winning book that’s hailed as a seminal work and a call to arms. It’s called, What Are Old People For? – How Elders Will Save the World. At one point his publisher advised him not to use the words “older people” in the title, because it would put people off.
The Baby Boomer effect
Thomas argues that, although ageism has always existed, today’s virulent variety has been fired by the very generation that is now entering old age – the Baby Boomers, those born after 1945. The Boomers were the largest generation in history, and their sheer weight of numbers meant they changed the culture of each decade they occupied. Their student revolts in the 1960s and 1970s saw the rejection of traditional cultural values.
They created a “malignant enlargement of adulthood”, and saw old age as hurtling down a cliff into terrible and inevitable decline; a time of uselessness and becoming a burden, almost a state of non-being. And, amazingly, although the biblical view of old age is clear, many Christians have absorbed Boomers’ ageist attitudes.
Does this ring any bells? I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard an older person say, “I don’t want to be a burden”. And a typical remark, after a session on God’s purpose for old age, came from a retired teacher who said that at 70, she had assumed that her useful days were over. I pointed out that there is no end-point in Ephesians 2:10 - the "good works" it mentions are for life.
Purple is the colour
So, if you think that being old is to do with a rocking chair and an easy lifestyle, think again. You’re looking through the binoculars backwards. I want to turn the lenses the right way around to give a clear view of God’s purpose for his seniors. It's why I wrote What’s Age Got To Do With It? - a book which helps identify ageist thinking that holds back so many, and shows how to dismantle it in yourself and in your church. God has a very high view of older people, and if purple is the colour of bravery, royalty and value, then in his eyes, they are already wearing it.
Louise Morse is media and communications manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society, a 210-year-old charity supporting older people. She is also a cognitive behavioural therapist and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia.