There is a time bomb waiting to hit us. In the UK there are more people over 60 than under 18. The percentage of people over 60 is currently around 22%. In 17 years’ time it will be 29% and in about 50 years’ time almost a third of people in the UK will be in their 60s or over. The number of those over 75 is set to double in the next 30 years, as is the number of those over 85 – that number will treble in the next 30 years. Nearly one in five of us alive today in the UK is likely to see our 100th birthday.
Basically, we are living longer, and this should be cause for celebration. One of the wonderful things about living today is the level of health care we receive from the NHS, medical advances mean childhood mortality is rare and we can expect in general to live longer and healthier lives than our forebears.
But alongside these figures of a growing elderly population, there is a problem. People gradually lose friends and family as loved ones pass away. Also, as we age our bodies begin to change – 58% of people over 60 have one or more long term health condition which often results in them becoming homebound, unable to go out. These factors, plus a multitude of others all contribute to increasing levels of loneliness and isolation amongst the older population. About 3.8m older people live alone, 2m of them over 75 – that is about half of the total population of over-75s and about 1.5 m of these are women. Over one in ten older people are in contact with family friends or neighbours less than once a month. Two-fifths of older people say that their main company is the TV. They know Simon Cowell better than their neighbours.
As the world gets faster, and we all live longer, this group, which many of us will join in time is in danger of being overlooked. When we speak in general terms about the ‘forgotten’ or the ‘vulnerable’ one of the groups that fits this category, and that exist in every community across London is the fast growing army of older people.
Yet there are many reasons why they deserve our attention. This is also the age group that is most likely to self-identify as Christian – about 88% if you want the figures, so at the very least, as fellow Christians, older people have a claim on our time and care. An African friend recently expressed surprise on the equanimity with which we accept the death of an elderly person, with our phrase “they had a good innings” – in her country, the passing of an elderly person was a cause for great mourning and sadness, as that wealth of experience had been lost to the community. In the Bible, youth is often seen as the time of foolishness, rash decisions, a lack of gravity, whereas old age is valued as a time of acquired wisdom: ‘grey hair is the splendour of the old’ (Prov 20.29).
So what can your church do? Firstly, we should choose to see older people as an asset rather than a burden. There are many roles that those over the age of 60 can fulfil within the church community, be it passing their years of wisdom to younger members of our congregation, using the spare time they might find in retirement to volunteer at events, courses or in other forms of ministry, or upholding the church and community in prayer from their own homes.
Second, we should value and welcome them as part of the family of the church. Most older people don’t think of themselves as being old, they are just another person and so most want to be included in ‘family services’ made accessible to them, allowing them to have a role and take part with the children, younger, and middle aged adults.
Third, to support older people who find themselves in a stage of increasing frailty, churches can reach out by connecting with and providing volunteers for local charities such as Age UK, or make contact with their local council to find out about services that need support. For lonely older residents, the local church can become a community hub, holding weekly lunch clubs, tea parties, and outings with transport provided, all of which can also be used as an avenue for evangelism – weaving in messages on hope, faith and life. See the video below for a great example of this happening at St Luke’s Kentish Town, London.
Growing old is something that will happen to most of us. It is a normal part of life and an issue our whole society has to tackle. As politicians, the NHS, the media and civil groups consider this increasingly as a basic issue of human dignity, the church has the resources, the reasons and the motivation to be at the centre of the solution to this challenge.