The Facts and Challenges of Growing Old

by James Rudy Gray

It is no secret that the American population as a whole is growing older. The 60-year period between 1960 and 2020 has a projected increase of 410% for the 60-plus age group. The projected increase for the total population is 157%.

What does that mean to Christian people-helpers? It means we will be serving more and more senior adults more often. Counselors will face some interesting challenges and opportunities in the coming years.

Some gerontologists break the senior adult population (60-plus) into three distinct groups: Young Old (65-75; Old (75-85); and Oldest Old (85-plus). About 50% of those in the oldest group require some form of assistance with the normal daily activities of living. Only 5% of the 60-plus group live in nursing homes. In fact, the majority of older adults live independently, never spending any time in a nursing home.

Women outlive men. In the 60-plus age group, there are approximately seven women to every man. Women typically live considerably longer as post-marriage singles. Things like chronic health problems, disability, and the death of a loved one can occur at any age in life but a person in the older adult age bracket is more likely to accumulate more of the these experiences. About 73% of the 2.3 million annual deaths in America are in the 65-plus age group.

Another interesting fact about our aging population in America is that the older adult group is the highest at risk group for suicide. The national average is 12 suicides per 100,000 but for the 75 to 84 age span, it is 24 per 100,000. In the 85-plus age level it increases to 27 per 100,000. Emotional difficulty knows no age limits. It is a myth that older adults cannot benefit from sound Christian counseling. We all have heard the phrase "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." However, when we talk about our senior adult population we are not talking about dogs or tricks!

Helen Devries, writing in Christian Counseling Today, reported that when older people are involved in counseling the "rates of improvement and the extent of gains are often similar to those found among younger groups."

Alzheimer's disease, which affects about 4 million Americans currently, puts enormous pressure on the primary caregivers. In fact, these caregivers have become known as the second victims of the disease. Frequently the Alzheimer's patient outlives the caregiver.

Elder abuse is another growing problem in our society. The abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, mental, neglect, etc.) is most often inflicted by family members.

The 76 million Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are today reaching mid-life (39-57).  They will soon be entering the Young Old age category. Their presence as older adults will present a dramatic challenge for society at large and the Social Security system in particular. Economists predict that aging boomers will still retire, but most will continue to work also.

This group also faces the task of caring for their parents.  Gerontological counselor Kathie Erwin writes, "For Christian Baby Boomers, parenting their parents is more than an economic necessity; it is an expression of faith." She quotes 1 Timothy 5:8: "But if anyone does not provide for his own, especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."

Psalm 71:9 says, "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; Do not forsake me when my strength fails."  We live in a culture that does not typically respect the elderly, as other cultures have done in the past and many still do in the present. That must change. Growing old is a vital and natural part of life. Christian older adults should be honored by Christians-especially those who are called to counsel others. Statistically, a Christian older adult may be closer to heaven than a younger adult, but heaven is a destiny all Christians share.

I came up with a phrase a few years ago. I am not sure it is original but I believe it a good motto for living the way God meant life to be lived: "Live until you die!" So many senior adults give up on life before they die. We need Christian people-helpers who will take the time to understand the particular traits of each older generation and strive to serve God effectively with each opportunity He gives us to help them.                    

Of all people, Christians can best believe the poet Browning's words, "Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be." Heaven is ahead for believers, but all God's people must be taught and encouraged to live until they die.

               James Rudy Gray, who pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C., is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors.

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