Living With the Challenge of Old Age
“SEVENTY years is all we have—eighty years, if we are strong; yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over, and we are gone.” (Psalm 90:10, Today’s English Version) This 3,000-year-old poetic song confirms that old age is an age-old challenge. Despite laudable medical advances, some aspects of old age still cause particular “trouble and sorrow.” Which are they, and how are some people meeting the challenges these present?
Old and Mentally Sharp
“My worst fear,” agonized 79-year-old Hans, “is senility.” Like many older people, Hans got perturbed about being forgetful. He worried that he was losing control of what one ancient poet called the “the golden bowl”—the precious brain with its treasured memories. (Ecclesiastes 12:6) Hans asked, “Is mental decline a normal part of aging?”
If, like Hans, you have forgotten names or have wondered if such lapses in memory are the beginning of serious mental decline, please be assured: Forgetfulness occurs at all ages, and changes in mental function that an older person may experience are not usually from dementia.a While some memory loss is common in later life, “most elderly people live out their lives in complete control of their mental abilities,” writes Dr. Michael T. Levy, chairman of behavioral science at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.
True, younger people usually surpass older ones in the speed at which they recall specific facts. But, “if you take away the timer,” says neurologist Richard Restak, “older people generally perform at least as well as their younger counterparts.” In fact, with appropriate education and training, healthy older brains continue to learn, to remember, and even to improve specific abilities.
Memory Problems and Treatable Conditions
What, though, if someone experiences more serious memory problems? Even then, he or she should not automatically conclude that dementia is the problem. Many other treatable conditions that occur in later life can cause memory difficulties and sudden unusual confusion. Such disorders are often mislabeled “old age” or “senility”—sometimes even by misinformed professionals. Not only is this demeaning to older patients but it may well prevent them from getting appropriate medical treatment. What might some of these disorders be?
Sudden unusual confusion can be caused by malnutrition, dehydration, anemia, head injury, thyroid problems, vitamin deficiency, side effects of medication, or even a disorienting change in environment. Memory problems can be caused by prolonged stress, and infections are notorious for causing a confused state in the aged. Depression can also be a cause of memory loss and confusion in elderly patients. Hence, “the rapid onset of a confusional state,” advises Dr. Levy, “should never be ignored or dismissed as hopeless senility.” A thorough medical examination may help to establish the underlying cause of the symptoms.
Dealing With Depression
Depression is not new to humans, even to faithful servants of God. Nearly two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul had to advise fellow Christians: “Speak consolingly to the depressed souls.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) In our stressful times, that need is even greater. Regrettably, though, depression in older ones often remains undiagnosed or is misdiagnosed.
Because of prevailing misconceptions that people become more dejected and moody with advanced age, symptoms may be viewed—by others as well as the elderly themselves—as a normal part of aging. “However, this is not the case,” states the book Treating the Elderly. “Depression among the elderly is not a part of the normal aging process.”
Prolonged clinical depression—in contrast with normal sadness or a bout of the blues—is a serious illness with potentially serious consequences and should not be ignored. Untreated depression can worsen and become so entrenched that some despairing patients resort to suicide. The tragedy of depression in older patients, explains Dr. Levy, is that “the most treatable of all psychiatric illness is also potentially the most lethal.” If the depression persists, the patient may need to be treated by a professional with experience in mood disorders.b—Mark 2:17.
Depressed individuals can be assured that Jehovah “is very tender in affection and compassionate.” (James 5:11, footnote) He “is near to those that are broken at heart.” (Psalm 34:18) Indeed, he is preeminently the one “who comforts the depressed.”—2 Corinthians 7:6, New American Standard Bible.
No Need to Feel Useless
“Do not throw me away in the time of old age; just when my power is failing, do not leave me,” prayed faithful King David over 3,000 years ago. (Psalm 71:9) Even in the 21st century, such sentiments are not unusual for older individuals who fear that they will no longer be viewed as useful. Limitations that are due to poor health easily contribute to feelings of inadequacy, and compulsory retirement can undermine one’s sense of self-worth.
However, by concentrating on what we are able to do rather than being discouraged by what we can no longer do, we can retain a sense of self-worth and usefulness. In this connection a UN report recommended ‘continuing growth through formal and informal learning, participation in community organizations, and religious activities.’ Ernest, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who is a retired master baker from Switzerland, is an example of the benefit of ‘continued growth through learning.’ In his 70’s, he decided to buy a computer and learn how to use it. Why did he do so, when many at his age are intimidated by technology? “First,” he explained, “to keep my mind active as I get older. And second, to keep up with technology that can help me in my Bible research and my activity in the Christian congregation.”
Engaging in productive activity can fill many fundamental needs of older ones: It provides a sense of meaning and fulfillment and may even provide some income. Wise King Solomon observed that it is a gift of God for man “to rejoice and to do good during one’s life; and also that every man should eat and indeed drink and see good for all his hard work.”—Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13.
Doing as Much as We Can
In many societies it is the elderly who convey knowledge, as well as moral and spiritual values, to succeeding generations. King David wrote: “Now that I am old and my hair is gray, do not abandon me, O God! Be with me while I proclaim your power and might to all generations to come.”—Psalm 71:18, Today’s English Version.
What, though, if older ones become severely limited by health or circumstances? This predicament upset 79-year-old Sarah, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who expressed her discouragement to a Christian elder. He reminded her of the Bible principle that ‘a righteous person’s supplication has much force.’ (James 5:16) “Over the years,” he explained, “you have built up an intimate relationship with God. Now you can let the rest of us benefit from that relationship when you pray privately for us.” She was very encouraged when he said, “Sarah, we need your prayers on our behalf.”
As Sarah realized, prayer is a rewarding and meaningful way for many older ones to exert themselves night and day in behalf of others. (Colossians 4:12; 1 Timothy 5:5) At the same time, such prayers help faithful older ones draw closer to the “Hearer of prayer,” Jehovah.—Psalm 65:2; Mark 11:24.
Older adults who have limitations but are generous with their experience and resources are precious assets in their communities. They prove that “gray-headedness is a crown of beauty when it is found in the way of righteousness.”—Proverbs 16:31.
We might well ask, though: What does the future hold for us as we get older? Can we realistically look forward to a better life in our later years?
a Some researchers claim that “almost 90 percent of all people older than 65 years are free of dementia.” For more information on the treatment of dementia, please see the series “Alzheimer’s Disease—Easing the Pain,” in the September 22, 1998, issue of Awake!
b Awake! does not endorse any particular approach. Christians should make sure that the treatment they pursue is in harmony with Bible principles. Please see the series “Understanding Mood Disorders,” in the January 8, 2004, issue of Awake!
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Older ones often feel they are being left behind in our modern fast-paced world
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How You Can Help the Elderly
◼ Preserve Their Dignity. “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but be appealing to him as a father, . . . [to] older women as mothers.”—1 Timothy 5:1, 2, Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible.
◼ Listen Carefully. “Be swift about hearing, slow about speaking, slow about wrath.”—James 1:19.
◼ Show Empathy. “All of you be like-minded, showing fellow feeling, having brotherly affection, tenderly compassionate, humble in mind, not paying back injury for injury or reviling for reviling.”—1 Peter 3:8, 9.
◼ Discern When Encouragement Is Needed. “As apples of gold in silver carvings is a word spoken at the right time for it.”—Proverbs 25:11.
◼ Include Them in Your Activities. “Follow the course of hospitality.”—Romans 12:13.
◼ Offer Practical Assistance. “Whoever has this world’s means for supporting life and beholds his brother having need and yet shuts the door of his tender compassions upon him, in what way does the love of God remain in him? Little children, let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.”—1 John 3:17, 18.
◼ Be Long-Suffering. “Clothe yourselves with the tender affections of compassion, kindness, lowliness of mind, mildness, and long-suffering.”—Colossians 3:12.
By caring for the elderly, we show respect for God’s own standards because his Word states: “You must show consideration for the person of an old man [or old woman].”—Leviticus 19:32.
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A thorough medical examination may be beneficial