The storied self – Reflections on ageing and the elderly

The storied self

The phrase “silver tsunami” is often used to describe the extraordinary rise in the number of older people throughout the world today. It is employed by not only politicians and academics, but also the ageing service sector.

The expression betrays society’s attitude towards its ageing members despite the rhetoric against ageism that pervades political speeches and the media. This is because the metaphor “tsunami” suggests that the rising ageing population is a doomsday catastrophe that must be expeditiously and effectively dealt with.

Modern society seems predisposed to view ageing persons vis-à-vis its reductive concepts of productivity. Seen from this perspective, ageing persons are not only deemed to be of little economic value, but also an immense burden to society. Sadly, the Church sometimes tacitly supports this view, as also evidenced by the little attention given to this topic by theologians. The Bible presents a realistic picture of ageing: On the one hand, it honestly acknowledges the physical and mental decline that comes with ageing; on the other, it acknowledges and appreciates the presence of the elderly in our midst, and calls for Christians to honour them.

In reminding the Corinthian Christians of their hope for “an eternal glory”, the apostle Paul speaks candidly about the deterioration of their mortal bodies (“outwardly we are wasting away”, 2 Corinthians 4:16 NIV). In doing so, the Bible addresses some of the misconceptions and triumphalism found in modern discourses about ageing.

One example of such misconceptions is the oft-repeated slogan that “age is just a number”. While the motivation behind this catchy phrase is to encourage ageing persons to remain active and engaged, it can result in unrealistic expectations and stubborn denials. In other words, it can inspire triumphalism that would bring frustrations.

In his letter entitled To the Elderly, Pope John Paul II reminds ageing persons of the difficulties that they will experience, which are part of their earthly existence.1 The Catholic spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, points out that it is only when an ageing person acknowledges his finitude that he is able to “break through the illusions of immortality and smile at all the urgencies and emergencies of his life”, and arrive at the “true reasons for living”.2

Recognising the limitations that come with ageing, however, should not be used as an excuse to remove oneself from responsibility to family, friends and the community. On the contrary, Pope John Paul II is careful to stress that ageing persons must continue to “make themselves useful” by putting “their time, talents and experience at the service of others”.3 Far from being a burden, ageing persons can be valuable resources and can contribute to the overall well-being of society.

But most importantly, the ageing person must continue to trust in the Lord. He must live by the words of the Psalmist who declares:

O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71:17-18)

It is this trust in God that will enable the ageing person to look beyond the obstacles and impediments that come with growing older, to his life with God in eternity (Romans 8:18-21). In so doing, the Psalmist is also reminding those younger than he that every phase of life must be seen as meaningful preparation for eternity.

While the elderly must accept the decline that comes with ageing, society must acknowledge and appreciate the presence of its ageing members. In fact, the absence of the elderly in biblical communities points to God’s disfavour (see 1 Samuel 2:31), while their presence was a sign of God’s favour. For example, in Zechariah we read:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. (Zechariah 8:4)

It is also the responsibility of the community to take care of its ageing members. The theologians of the Church teach that this is but an extension of the fifth commandment to “honour your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).

The community honours its older members when it welcomes and assists them. It honours its elders when it allows them to make meaningful contributions to its shared life with their talents, experiences and life stories.

The true character of a society or community is revealed in the way in which it respects, honours and cares for its ageing members.

1 John Paul II, ‘To the Elderly’, October 1, 1990,

2 Henri Nouwen and Walter J. Gaffney, Aging (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 79.

3 John Paul II, ‘To the Elderly’, para 16.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.