Even before the most recent dire warnings about population decline, Ian Knox in his excellent book Finishing Well writes this: ‘There are vast numbers of statistics to show that a veritable army of us are old, which should encourage us to see, as we go on to look at our potential, what we might achieve together.’
Here are some of the starkest numbers he brings to life:
- There are half a million aged over 90 in the UK, 70% of whom are women.
- Her Majesty the Queen employs 8 full time card senders for those 100 and 100+
- Two million people over 75 live alone
- Nearly one in five of all those living in the UK will reach 100, including 29% of those born in 2011.
Apart from the Queen possibly needing to employ more card writers, as Ian puts it “it is vital for society to get its act together. It is all the more important for the Church to do so.”
Unfortunately, as Faith in Later Life’s friend Louise Morse has written, ‘Ageism and age discrimination are like pollution, lurking unseen, everywhere’. More than a third of those aged over 65 say they have experienced it. As Ian Knox puts it, ‘old age is seen as decline and loss, not for its gains and achievements’ – far more so in the UK than in other countries.
One way that the church embodies a retort to ageism is in the strength of its volunteers. Older people are not a burden on the church, but its lifeblood in serving communities. It will not surprise those in churches to hear that one in three of those aged 65-74 volunteer, more than any other age group. See the Gov.uk Community Life Survey for more details.
A recent report on Faith and Society said that church volunteer hours rose by almost 60% from 2010-2014, to 114.8 million hours per year; the Cinnamon Trust valued this contribution at £3 billion. A quarter of all charities in the UK is now faith based.
Take Tom and Judy, for example, described in ‘Finishing Well’. In their 80s and not in good health, they open their home twice a week for groups to come, meet, sing and pray, and relieve loneliness. Elizabeth, also in her 80s, ‘has spent her working life as an exceptionally brilliant doctor, specialising in paediatrics. She has learned over many years how to get alongside the vulnerable. She acts as a spiritual director, leads a weekly meditation and a monthly prayer meeting. “I can’t retire,” she says. “Life’s exciting. I have a burning desire to be with people, to share and to learn”. Almost every day will find Elizabeth counselling someone on the phone, while she is still working on a church network concerned with non-violence to children. “I’m not for giving up – I have a zest for life and an enormous zeal for God.”
As Ian Knox concludes, she is a great example of using our life skills for God’s glory, both in her own home and in the wider community.
2 Corinthians 4: 13-16 hold words of enormous hope:
“Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”