A short time ago I wrote a piece about the importance of recognising change in a positive sense as part of the human lot. What I did not discuss was the second part of the quotation from the hymn, Abide with Me, where it speaks not only of change but also of decay. This August, as last year, I am on chaplaincy cover at the local hospital. This means that I am talking to quite a few people sometimes at the very end of their lives. The hope is that some spiritual insight and counsel may ease their passing. That is the theory of a chaplain’s work. The actual practice is to listen to an elderly person, often in a state of sadness and confusion, and hope that the mere act of listening may help them feel connected a little, as they prepare to make the final journey from this life to the beyond.
The prevalence of actual dementia in so many of the elderly population is a fact of our time. Various initiatives are proposed, both social and pharmacological, but the sad fact is that quite a proportion of our elderly people die in a state of wondering who they are and barely recognising their relatives. This morning I spent time with one old lady who was convinced that her relatives had abandoned her and that they wanted her to die so that they could get their hands on her money. I had no means of knowing whether any of it was true or whether it was a fantasy created by her confused state. Either way it was a sad place for her to be. The same relatives will find themselves rejected when they get back from holiday and she will die, quite possibly, with a feeling of being completely abandoned.
The examples of mental and physical decay in the very old are familiar to all of us. It raises quite profound theological questions about our identity. Is our soul somehow contained in the sad confused state that many of us are destined to arrive at, or is there is a ‘core’ personality that exists beneath or above what we may become? Also when we use the language of ‘conversion’ to describe the Christian individual, is that state of being ‘saved’ something that can never be eradicated, whatever happens to that person in later life? It is not clear what the answer is to these questions, but it is important to ask them as we wrestle with the profound questions of human suffering as well as human identity. My own personal answer to the dilemma is to imagine that each of us do have a core personality which draws on aspects of what we are now and have been at every stage. Our ‘tree’ may have many layers or tree rings within but it is one tree with all the years of growth and change contained within it. The tree when it is fully grown still has those years of growth inside the trunk, even if only one layer of bark is visible to the human eye. I always think of God in looking at us, seeing, not only the people we have become but the totality of the all the stages of our journey on the way to the present moment. One gets the sense that the psalmist thought like this when he declared in Psalm 22.10: ‘upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me, thou hast been my God.’ God knows us from the beginning and that knowledge is one that carries us through to the end.
The seeming tragedy of old-age decay may not be the total evil that it appears at first sight. If we can retain an optimistic perspective, then we have good news for the elderly. God sees beyond and behind the outward decay to love and affirm the person right across the span of life. The practical issue is that the church is not good at sharing this message. In proclaiming ‘mission’ as being at the centre of its task, it very easily allows the extreme elderly to drop out of sight in favour of the young and virile who may yet become Christians. It goes without saying that the abandoning of a group of people, because of age or confusion, is an example of abuse through neglect. Old people need to be honoured and respected by both church and society. Somehow we have to find ways of expressing our respect and not regarding them as a nuisance because they no longer make a tangible contribution to their community. Above all, as Christians, we need to learn to see them as I believe God sees them, people with lives and loves behind and within them. We need to see them like trees containing the numerous rings of life and experience. That way the church could make an enormous contribution to the well-being of society. It could be said to be a place where people, all people, are honoured and valued from birth to death. This is what God does. He sees us and affirms us as wholes, as complete people.
My opportunity for visiting these very elderly people is confined to the periods when I am on duty at the local hospital covering for the chaplain’s holidays. For the rest of the time they are to me, as for most people, an invisible segment of society. It would of course be possible to pretend that because we seldom encounter the very old, that we can ignore the problem and hope it will somehow disappear. But even we were to think like this, there is one overriding reason to restrain us in such an approach. That is the fact that all of us need to think now about the way we will fare in a similar situation. For Christians we have to ask whether the church will support us in extreme old age. Will I be heard, have psalms read to me and be generally affirmed by members of the church or will I be abandoned as having nothing at that point to contribute to the Christian community? Perhaps that is a question that all my readers should ponder. If we do ask the question for ourselves, perhaps we can make a small difference now in ensuring that, in a very small way, the church moves out of its comfort zone to visit, support and minister to the elderly, the confused and the sick. They are, after all, again in the words of the Psalmist, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. By seeing that we are able to give them back some of the honour and dignity that age and infirmity has seemingly taken from them.