Old age and dementia
The Australian Government has announced a Royal Commission into the aged care sector. It will primarily look at the quality of care provided to senior Australians in residential-care (nursing homes) and in home-care (aging in own home). The Royal Commission was announced just before Four Corners aired a two-part investigation on TV into the treatment of the elderly in aged-care homes. This included disturbing accounts of overworked staff and neglected residents.
But what does the Bible say about old age and dementia?
Aging is a part of life
The Bible treats aging as a normal process. Solomon said there is “a time to be born and a time to die” (Eccl. 3:2NIV). In Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 he poetically describes old age (v.1-5) and death (v.6-7). This is a stage in life when we become more dependent on others. If we live long enough, we all grow old and die. Life fades away.
Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 is one long sentence in Hebrew. It’s introduced by saying that old age is characterized by “trouble” (or difficult days) and lack of pleasure (v.1). Then it says that the arms and hands begin to tremble. The legs and knees begin to sag. Teeth are lost, and chewing is more difficult. The eyes are dimmed. Hearing diminishes. Sleep becomes more difficult and one is easily wakened. Singing and music are less appreciated. One becomes more fearful. The hair becomes white. The once active become weak. And the passions and desires of life weaken and wane.
It describes physical deterioration and loss of self-confidence (v.5a). Every part of the body is slowing down and declining—including the brain and the mind—until finally “the silver cord is severed”, “the golden bow is broken”, “the pitcher is shattered at the spring”, and “the wheel broken at the well” (v.6-7).
The elderly and those with dementia are valuable
Because they are made in the image of God, all people are important to God and should be important to us as well. This gives everyone, including the elderly and those with dementia, dignity which demands our respect. The Bible says that because people are in the image of God, murder is wrong (Gen. 9:6). This implies that because people are in the image of God, euthanasia is also wrong.
All Christians are a child of God and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This applies to the elderly and those with dementia. God is still with them. Nothing can separate them from the love of God (Rom. 8:35-39).
So the elderly and those with dementia should be valuable to us as well.
God is always good
The Bible says that God is good. No matter our circumstances, God’s character does not change.
When God described how He sustained the Jews He said, “Even to your old age and grey hairs
I [God] am He, I am He who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isa. 46:4).
So in old age and dementia, God is present and sustains people.
Old age and dementia are symptoms of our sinful world, that is characterized by decay. Nothing that is physical lasts for ever. The hope of all Christians is to live eternally in the presence of God where there will be no old age or dementia. No more difficult days. Instead, one day suffering and sickness will be no more (Rom. 8:18-25). God was with us in the past, he is with us in the present, and he will be with us in the future.
So we don’t need to freeze our body after we die in the hope it can be revived and reanimated in future. The only reliable hope for immortality is via the God who designed our bodies and who controls our destinies.
What should be our response to the aged and those with dementia?
Care and respect
The elderly and those with dementia deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The Israelites were to respect the elderly like they respected God:
“Stand up in the presence of the aged,
show respect for the elderly
and revere your God. I am the Lord”
(Lev. 19:32). And Jesus showed love and respect to all people. The early church supported orphans and widows (Acts 6:1-6; Jas. 1:26). And the church at Ephesus supported widows without descendants (Eph. 5:3-10).
But what can we do for the elderly and those with dementia? We can show respect by providing for their physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs even though it may be difficult to understand what they are. Christians are urged, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:9-10). And Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine [who needed food, drink, hospitality and clothes] you did for me” (Mt. 25:40). This means always being kind and loving.
When supporting the elderly, we can focus on God’s comfort, forgiveness, and promises of love and eternal presence. Early memories are usually retained long into the dementia. If the person has a Christian background, reading the Bible, prayer and gospel songs can give them a sense of comfort and peace and help them feel loved. If we assist them to use all their senses—sight, sound, touch, and smell—spiritual memories will often be awakened. When we help a person feel God’s presence, even for only a moment, we have made a difference in their quality of life. Caregivers need support and respite as well.
What about us?
This reminds us that life is short and uncertain. We need to make the most of opportunities while we can. The time to receive Christ and serve the Lord is while we are still alive, in our right minds and can make a choice. Solomon says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come … “ (Eccl. 12:1). We will not have the ability to enjoy the blessing of a godly old age and a life of service to God if earlier in life we do not trust in the historical fact that God sent Jesus to remove our barrier to heaven by dying for our sin.
What can we do to prepare for old age? We can ask what spiritual disciplines are regular enough for us that they will “stick” even during dementia? Are we reading, memorizing, and meditating on Scripture; praying to God; singing gospel songs; and serving others? Such practices train us in godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). If we do these regularly, then they will bring motivation and comfort when we are reminded of them in our old age.
Aging is a part of life. The elderly are valuable. God is always good. And all the ailments of old age and dementia will disappear in heaven.
Meanwhile, our time on earth is limited. Let’s use our abilities and opportunities while we can to respect and care of the elderly and those with dementia.
Written, September 2018