I get the impression that many older adults want to be more involved in community life but find that there isn’t enough opportunity. Why are we so bad at including older adults, and what are we missing out on?
I remember my Mother and Father discussing why they did not want to become Grey Nomads (older adults who travel for large parts of the year). They consider that traveling too much would mean disengaging with their local community, and particularly church.
If they can stay engaged, then they will be able to contribute their wisdom and be an example for others. They hope they will not waste the opportunities to encourage people. However, will the younger generation waste the opportunity my parents want to create?
I visited my grandparents less than I should have, and still struggle to stay in contact with older people who are important in my life. This seems to be a widespread issue. In the busyness of life, it seems that relationships with older people are neglected. I doubt that this comes down to a single factor, but one which I have been considering lately is the way people seem to gather more with those of similar social status.
Society venerates work, especially paid work, and we tend to fall into the trap of valuing peoples’ skills and social inputs in proportion with the status of their profession. In this analysis, retired people tend to be perceived with less regard than is due (and often still for the reasons of their former economic position). Such thinking is bad for our communities, encouraging narrow and insufficient inclusion.
Additionally, I find, in my own experience, that it is very hard to keep in contact with people unless there is a regular event that draws us to the same place. Where our community already fails to involve older adults well, this adds to the isolating factors. For many of us, it will require some degree of uncomfortable action to improve our communities.
Visiting people takes time and effort, as does a simple phone call. We are unlikely to succeed in helping older adults find opportunities without going a bit out of our way, but it will be an effort worth making.
Even where older adults are not particularly well engaged in a community, there is a good chance that they are contributing more than is recognised. Sometimes being visible in the community is enough to cause encouragement.
As a child
Once, when I was a child, I remember being concerned that the Christian life might be too hard to live. Perhaps we had been reading Luke chapter 9, “If any one would come after me [(Jesus)], let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (v. 23 ESV trans.) I thought something along the lines of this: if following God means facing such trial, how can I know I wont give up?
At that time, I looked across the church towards a bunch of 80-and-90-year-olds and thought, if God can keep them, then he can keep me. Seeing the example of these very old adults grew my faith then and over the years. Thinking back on what these people did, though they may all be deceased now, continues to give me courage to keep striving in following Jesus.
I confess that this article only scratches the surface of this issue. There are probably many things from your own experience that could help to improve engagement with older adults in our communities. Perhaps a useful place to start is this: what can you do this week?
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.