Showing Christian Love to the Elderly
SAMUEL JOHNSON, an 18th-century author, told the tale of a young man who, when visiting friends, forgot where he had put his hat. This caused no comment. “But if the same inattention is discovered in an old man,” Johnson went on, “people will shrug up their shoulders and say, ‘His memory is going.’”
Johnson’s story demonstrates that the elderly, perhaps like other minority groups, are subject to unjust typecasting. While caring for the needs of the aged is a challenge, benefits accrue to all parties involved. What are the challenges and the rewards, and why does this subject affect more and more people?
According to statistics, 6 percent of the world’s population is 65 years of age or older, and in developed countries the percentage is twice as great. In the European Community, which designated 1993 as “European Year of Older People and Solidarity Between Generations,” 1 person in 3 is over 50. There, as in most industrialized lands, declining birthrates and increasing life expectancy are making the population distribution top-heavy. Looking after those of advanced years under such circumstances is clearly a monumental task. How different things used to be in the Oriental past!
“Depositaries of Knowledge”
The Handwörterbuch des Biblischen Altertums für gebildete Bibelleser (Handbook of Biblical Antiquity for Educated Readers of the Bible) points out that in Oriental antiquity “the elderly were viewed as preservers of the traditional values of wisdom and higher knowledge, for which reason younger ones were admonished to seek their company and learn from them.” Smith’s Bible Dictionary explains: “In private life [the aged] were looked up to as the depositaries of knowledge . . . [The young] allowed them to give their opinion first.”
Reverence for the aged was reflected in the Mosaic Law at Leviticus 19:32: “Before gray hair you should rise up, and you must show consideration for the person of an old man.” So the aged occupied a position of privilege within society and were looked upon as valuable assets. This is obviously the way Ruth the Moabitess viewed her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi.
Ruth firmly decided to accompany Naomi from Moab to Israel, thereafter listening carefully to Naomi’s advice. Once they were in Bethlehem, it was Naomi who observed that Jehovah’s hand was directing affairs and who then instructed Ruth how to behave. (Ruth 2:20; 3:3, 4, 18) Ruth’s life was shaped in a theocratic manner as she learned from the experienced Naomi. Her mother-in-law proved to be a depositary of knowledge.
In a similar fashion, younger Christian women today can benefit by associating with older women in the congregation. Perhaps a sister is contemplating marriage or is struggling with a stubborn personal problem. How wise it would be to seek the counsel and support of a mature elderly sister who has experience in the matter!
Furthermore, a body of elders can benefit by tapping the experience of aged ones in their midst. We can learn from Lot’s failure to do this. A quarrel involving herders of the livestock of Abraham and Lot called for a decision that would affect everyone. Lot made an unwise choice. How much better it would have been to have asked for Abraham’s counsel first! Lot would have received mature direction and could have spared his family the misery that resulted from his quick choice. (Genesis 13:7-13; 14:12; 19:4, 5, 9, 26, 29) Do you listen carefully to what mature elders say before reaching your own judgment on a question?
Countless aged ones have lasting zeal for Jehovah’s work, as did Simeon and Anna in the first century. (Luke 2:25, 36, 37) It is a mark of respect and a reflection of a caring attitude toward such elderly ones to involve them in congregation activities as much as their strength allows, even well into old age. Perhaps a youth needs help to prepare an assignment for the Theocratic Ministry School. An astute elder might conclude that the ideal mentor would be an aged member of the congregation, one with mellowed wisdom, a benevolent manner, and available time.
However, tending to the special needs of the aged involves more. Many are troubled by loneliness, fear of crime, and financial difficulties. Furthermore, once the elderly become infirm, these problems are compounded by failing health and disappointment at their own diminishing vigor. They then need much more attention. How should individuals and the congregation as a whole react?
“Practice Godly Devotion”
During the first century, Paul wrote under inspiration at 1 Timothy 5:4, 16: “If any widow has children or grandchildren, let these learn first to practice godly devotion in their own household and to keep paying a due compensation to their parents and grandparents, for this is acceptable in God’s sight. If any believing woman has widows, let her relieve them, and let the congregation not be under the burden. Then it can relieve those who are actually widows.” Looking after the aged was a family matter. If an older member of the congregation was in need after exhausting avenues within his family, responsibility rested on the congregation. These principles have not changed.
What has helped Christians to show Christian love toward the elderly by practicing godly devotion in their own household? Observe the following comments by a number of Witnesses who have some experience in caring for those of advanced years.
Regular Attention to Spiritual Needs
“Considering the daily text together was an invaluable aid,” recalls Felix, who helped his wife care for her parents. “Personal experiences and aspirations were interwoven with the principles of Jehovah.” Indeed, in rising to the challenge of minding elderly relatives, a prime factor is the giving of due attention to their spiritual edification. This is logical in view of Jesus’ words at Matthew 5:3: “Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need.” The daily text can be augmented by a Bible-reading program, by discussion of Bible-based publications, and by prayer. “It seems the elderly like a degree of regularity,” remarks Peter.
Yes, regularity is essential in spiritual matters. Not only in spiritual things but also in everyday life do older ones appreciate routine. Even those with slight infirmities can be warmly encouraged to “get out of bed and dress properly each day,” remarks Ursula. Of course, we want to avoid the impression of dictating to the aged. Doris admits that her well-meaning efforts often went sadly astray. “I made all sorts of mistakes. One day I asked my father to change his shirt daily. My mother then reminded me: ‘He is still my husband!’”
The elderly were young once, but for younger ones to put themselves in the shoes of the aged is a formidable task. Yet, that is the key to understanding their special needs. Advancing age brings frustration. Gerhard explains: “My father-in-law got annoyed with himself because he could no longer do everything he used to. Coming to grips with the situation was extremely painful. His personality changed.”
Under changing circumstances, it is not uncommon for an older person to vent pent-up frustration by criticizing others, especially those looking after him. The reason is simple. Their loving attention reminds him of his own failing vigor. How should you react to this unfair criticism or complaint?
Remember, such negative feelings do not reflect Jehovah’s view of your efforts. Continue doing good, and maintain a clean conscience, even if you reap occasional unjust comments. (Compare 1 Peter 2:19.) The local congregation can offer much support.
What the Congregation Can Do
Many congregations have reason to be deeply grateful for the past efforts of our dear elderly brothers and sisters. It was they who perhaps laid the foundation for the congregation, building it up from just a few publishers decades ago. Where would the congregation be without their past zealous activity and, perhaps, current financial support?
When increased care becomes essential in the case of an aged publisher, relatives need not stand alone with the responsibility. Others can assist by running errands, cooking, cleaning, taking the aged one for walks, offering transport to Christian meetings, or simply conversing with him at the Kingdom Hall. All can join in, though efficiency and routine are best achieved where efforts are coordinated.
Coordination is something elders can bear in mind when organizing shepherding calls. Some congregations are exemplary in this regard, the elders ensuring that regular shepherding visits are made to aged and frail ones, even those who are being well looked after by their families. However, it appears that other congregations should be more aware of their obligation toward the elderly.
One faithful brother, well into his 80’s, was looked after by his daughter and his son-in-law, who left Bethel to do so. Yet, visits by other members of the congregation were still important to him. “When I used to visit the sick,” the brother lamented, “I prayed with them. But no one has ever prayed with me.” The loving attention of relatives does not absolve elders from the obligation to ‘shepherd the flock of God in their care.’ (1 Peter 5:2) Furthermore, those caring for elderly ones need to be upbuilt and encouraged to carry on with their fine work.
“Old and Satisfied”
Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th-century German scientist, was well along in years when a young lady asked him whether he did not find growing old rather tedious. “You’re quite right,” replied the learned man. “But it is the only way of living for a long time.” In the same vein, many brothers and sisters today set a fine example of accepting the adversities of old age in return for the honor of leading a long life. They reflect the attitude shown by Abraham, Isaac, David, and Job, who were “old and satisfied.”—Genesis 25:8; 35:29; 1 Chronicles 23:1; Job 42:17.
Advancing age brings the challenge of accepting help gracefully and of expressing gratitude sincerely. Wisdom requires that each recognize the limits of his strength. However, that does not condemn an aging person to inactivity. Maria is well over 90 years of age, but she still attends congregation meetings and gives comments there. How does she do it? “I cannot read anymore, but I listen to The Watchtower on cassette. I forget quite a lot, but I usually manage to give a comment.” Like Maria, keeping occupied with matters that are upbuilding helps a person to remain active and to retain the Christian personality.
Under God’s Kingdom, old age will be no more. At that time those who grew old in this system and perhaps even died will have fond memories of the care and attention shown to them. As such elderly ones regain life and vigor, they will surely feel intense love for Jehovah and deep gratitude toward those who stuck with them during their trials in this old system.—Compare Luke 22:28.
What about those who look after the aged now? Very soon, when the Kingdom takes full control of the earth, they will look back with joy and relief that they did not sidestep their obligation but practiced godly devotion by showing Christian love to the elderly.—1 Timothy 5:4.
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The Elderly Will Appreciate Your Visits
Much good can be accomplished by planning a call, perhaps of 15 minutes, on an aged one after preaching activity. But it is best not to leave such visits to chance, as the following experience shows.
Brigitte and Hannelore were preaching together, engaging an elderly man in conversation at his door. The sisters spoke to him for five minutes before discovering that he too was a Witness of Jehovah, a member of the same congregation. How embarrassing! But the experience ended on a positive note. Hannelore made immediate plans to visit the brother and to assist him in attending congregation meetings.
Do you know the name and address of each older publisher living in the territory where you preach? Could you arrange to make a brief call? It would likely be appreciated very much.