We live in an ageing society. In 2007, 15.9% of the population were aged 65 or older. Ten years later that statistic had increased to 18.2% and it is projected to exceed 20% by 2027. The Bible would encourage us to see this as a blessing. The elderly are to be respected (Leviticus 19:32; 1 Peter 2:17) but some have questioned this. George Burns who lived to be a hundred observed one of the challenges of ageing. “By the time you’re eighty years old you have learned everything, you only have to remember it”.
For many living longer is the result of better health and diet and is to be welcomed but for some it can mean loneliness and the need for caring support. Positively, healthy elderly people have a lot to contribute. If they live close to their sons and daughters who both wish or need to work, they can care for their grandchildren. When retired they also have time for community activities and for enjoying hobbies and social activities they missed when working.
On the other hand, longer retirement may mean poverty as their savings run out and their pensions do not keep up with inflation. Facing this alone can lead to worry and depression. This can be especially serious for widows whose pensions and savings are inadequate because they took time out of paid employment to have children. To counter this the Government changed the normal retirement age that used to be 60 for women and 65 for men. As of this year, the normal retirement age for both men and women is 66 and employers are being encouraged to employ older workers.
This may work well for some but not necessarily for those in their seventies and eighties, especially if they have some form of dementia or physical disability. If they are unsupported by their families, they will need some form of social care. The austerity measures in force since 2010 have squeezed local authority budgets and reduced their capacity to provide adequate social care services.
The charity Independent Age has found substantial variations in the quality of those local services. For example. 44% of care homes in Manchester were rated ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. The charity concluded, “That over 2.6 million pensioners are now being forced to choose between sub-par care homes due to the rising numbers of facilities given poor ratings by the Care Quality Commission”.
This situation challenges the Christian community to follow Jesus’ teaching about loving our neighbours (Matthew 19:19 and 22:39).Mission orientated churches could be seeking to identify elderly folk living alone, to visit them and offer appropriate support. They might offer to give them lifts to the shops or do some shopping for them. They can offer to do some gardening, give them lifts to church or the doctor, or just to chat with them. A community lunch that offers company to lonely people is another possibility. Such initiatives might help those people to come to faith.
There is also a challenge for the media in an ageing population. The cancellation of the free TV licence will affect 3.7 million people over the age of 75 unless they are in receipt of the pension credit benefit. The Government has shifted responsibility for funding the free licence to the BBC, which is more concerned to appeal to younger audiences who have been turning from the BBC to Netflix and YouTube.
An ageing population also has political significance. In the 2016 referendum 60% of those aged 65 or over voted to leave the EU whilst over 70% of those aged 18-24 who voted backed ‘Remain’. The key factor was that 70% of the older group cast their votes but only 46% of younger group did so. One wonders whether the latter group will retain their support for EU membership or change as they mature.
The ultimate challenge of an ageing population is that there is mutual respect and care between the young and old. The American columnist Ann Lander, who lived to 84, wrote, “At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.” Let us so live that we prove her wrong.