Where Are All the Old People?

Today three laughing children loaded up in the minivan to go off with Papa. It’s rare for a day to go by without my children seeing their Nana and Papa. When I ask before bed, “Do you guys have anything you want to pray for?” one of them invariably wants to pray for Nana and Papa, or grandma and grandpa. Even though that set of grandparents lives hundreds of miles away they are regular topics in the stream-of-consciousness dialogues that are common in our bustling household.

Growing up overseas I have only have hazy recollections of my grandparents during my childhood. I remember by grandmother coming to visit us in Japan once, and I remember wondering if I was going to like my grandparents when we came back to the States on furlough when I was eleven. In later years they became more precious to me. I remember my grandpa trying to express comfort to me when my brother died by telling me a little about losing his own son, John.

The first commandment that comes with a promise is the commandment to honor your parents. Typically we think about this during the “raise and nurture” part of life, when honoring one’s parents means sitting in your chair at the dinner table, doing your homework, helping load the dishwasher, etc……But not only is this a commandment with a promise, it is a commandment without an expiration date. Honor your parents: always.

Jesus taught that care of parents extended into adulthood and was a matter of personal piety (Matt 15:1-9). I don’t know that we have completely stopped thinking about this, but it seems like culture is moving in the wrong direction. The elderly are more and more marginalized and isolated. Retirement communities where old people die together outside the presence of a broader clan is the new norm. And while health concerns sometimes necessitate that a parent live in a place that can provide medical care, I wonder how many wind up there because the sacrifice is too high a price for their family to pay to keep them home. (Incidentally, thank you to my Uncle Dave for living with grandma those last years of her life and caring for her.)

I personally know the elderly who are seldom visited by their children and even less by their grandchildren. Teenagers who should be cleaning out gutters and weed whacking are busy with school, friends, and extra curricular activities. Churches that have too many old people won’t draw the young crowd: I actually heard one megachurch outreach pastor recommend only putting the young at the entryway doors so when cars drove by they would get the impression that theirs was a “young” church.

One elderly person I spoke with just wanted to make sure she wasn’t a bother to her family as she aged. She had saved and planned so that her children would only have to see her when it suited them. No interruptions to their schedule. No running her to doctor’s appointments or to the grocery store. It never occurred to her that she was actually robbing her children of a blessing by making sure they only saw her on obligatory holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter. Is there truly nothing she can contribute by way of wisdom and presence?

I know many people caring for their aging loved ones and it is both a burden and a beauty. I also understand that there are individual circumstances that everyone must work through. But I am concerned that the old will recede even further into the cracks and corners of public life now that we are addressing a worldwide pandemic. When the messy business of getting back to “normal” happens for most of us, it won’t for the elderly, who will be advised to stay home.

I have no solutions, only questions. But I do know that we need the elderly. We need them in our personal lives and in our neighborhoods. We need them in our churches and our communities. When my children give my 84 year old neighbor a hug – a man who has been left unable to communicate due to a stroke 4 years ago – I know that the blessings flow in 2 directions. God forbid those type blessings would stop flowing.

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