(This statement was approved by the 37th General Council of The United Church of Canada, August 2000)
Aging begins with birth and unfolds in stages throughout our life -- throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In late adulthood, aging unfolds in still further stages: we speak of the young old, the old old, and the oldest old, or as some say, the frisky, the frail, and the fragile. To grow older is normal. It is a fulfilment of the cycle of life, a process of maturation, of becoming more fully who we are. In some respects, the older we grow, the more like ourselves we become.
While we may affirm such a perspective intellectually, society's attitudes towards aging and our emotional responses to both our own and others' aging are frequently ambiguous and conflicting. Often we view aging negatively, as the end of life, the sign of decline, the prelude to death. Downright denial is not uncommon.
Positive or negative, our perspectives on aging influence how we engage with the issues it requires us to face, in our own lives and the lives of those we love, in the neighbourhoods in which we live, and also in our church. Our beliefs influence our behaviours; our attitudes affect our actions; our theology informs our ethics.
Ethics invites us to question what we are doing and why. It demands that we ask: How can we ensure that our vision of justice includes older adults individually and in our community and society?
Throughout the centuries the church has expressed its theology in creeds. These creeds are often modified as our understanding of God's presence in the world changes. Here, linked to the theology of The United Church of Canada, as expressed in "A New Creed," are some statements concerning the theology and ethics of ageing.
God is with us through all of life. At every stage of our development, in our older years as much as in our youth, we are surrounded by God's presence and supported by God's grace. These mature years are usually a time of fulfilment and blessing.
As we age, however, some of us feel isolated, abandoned, and lost. Whether through the death of a partner or friend, the loss of mobility and independence, the decline of hearing and vision, or the swirl of a bewildering world, we may find our faith growing not stronger, but weaker, and our most long-held certainties and passionate convictions increasingly put to the test. With memory of our early years often only a distant comfort or else a source of continuing puzzlement and pain, a sense of meaning may seem harder and harder to find.
For all of its confusion, its challenge, and its change, however, the world is ultimately God's. Everything it presents us with, potentially, has its purpose and place -- if we are open to God. With the help of loving listeners, such as family members, friends, and other caregivers, we can revisit, reinterpret, and redeem events that have caused us distress. In the process, we can experience healing and hope, discovering the unique wisdom that has taken shape amid the course our life has traced. Through such events, we can thus grow and learn. Because of them, we can experience the ripening of love and become more appreciative of the preciousness of life.
Created in God's image, we are blessed and cursed with freedom and knowledge, and with responsibility for our actions and our use of earth's resources. We find ourselves co-creators on a life-long journey.
Like Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, we set out not knowing where our road will lead, yet we sense the creative force that is with and within us. Our journeys take us through youth, young adulthood, and mid-life experiences, until we come, too soon, to those mature years we call retirement.
Arbitrary chronological terminations, such as mandatory retirement at 65, are social and economic conveniences imposed by society. They do not necessarily reflect the worth, creativity, or energy of older adults, or the value of our several journeys as co-creators with God. Each of us continues to be a "work in progress" until the end of our life.
We are called to recognise, encourage, and support initiatives by older adults to explore meaningful and satisfying options, and to offer (their) experience and wisdom to the church and the community.
We are all made flesh. This carries with it the possibility of both the fullness of life and the brokenness of life, as well as the inevitability of death. As we become old, our preoccupation with the flesh does not decrease. Indeed, bodily functions require even more attention. We see our bodies sagging and wrinkling; we hear the creaking; we feel the aching. Yet new physical accomplishments may take place in the form of fitness, dieting, and dancing, as well as new intimacies and affections with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Older people need to connect with others in the ebb and flow of relationship and spirituality. Institutions and social structures often deny the humanness that gives rise to such needs of the elderly. Many persons are at their best in whatever they are doing when they are in love, loved, and have intimate relationships. The lifelong need for intimacy and the expression of sexuality is not readily recognised. Older couples living in the same long-term care institutions may not have the option of living together; people are discouraged from holding hands in public; new and possibly life-giving romances are discouraged or in some cases forbidden. For same-gender couples the situation is even more difficult.
The Word made flesh carries with it the inevitability of death. Most people fear the process of dying and long for a sudden death, long to be fully alive until they die. Our society has the ability to prolong life through "heroic" measures, but these practices are being questioned on humane grounds. Removal of life support systems may be a trauma or a blessing. Older persons can assist loved ones and caregivers by considering this issue with them before the emergency arises, and by making a living will that sets forth their personal desire for end of life care. Questions around power of attorney, the use of palliative care resources, burial or cremation, and funeral planning might also be clarified and discussed.
There are hurting times at this stage of living when losses occur, such as the freedom to drive a car and to live in the comfort of one's familiar home. It is a particularly difficult time if the older person is suffering from dementia. When this happens, caregivers are faced with the dilemma of respecting the choices of the older adult while still dealing with issues of health, safety, and choice of living accommodations. These decisions create increased levels of stress among family members and friends who have taken on the role of caregivers. While recognising the stress of this bittersweet time, many caregivers and older adults experience an increased intimacy and deepened relationship that bring joy and peace to the latter days of life.
There is an element of mystery and surprise about the Spirit. The Spirit often works through the interactions between human beings. The church is called to be a place where the recounting and reviewing of personal life stories becomes a reconciling and healing practice. We must hear the stories of our elders and learn to discern in them both the sacraments of failure and disappointment, and of joyful achievement. In the recognition, acceptance, and occasional reframing of these stories, we leave room for the Spirit to transform our experience into life-giving hope for the individual and also for the whole community of faith.
Trusting in God often seems easier when our lives feel in tune with our ideas of how our lives should unfold. Scripture reminds us that we can trust that God's Spirit is with us in all of life's experiences.
The latter years of life offer unique opportunities for new perspectives on God's call to be faithful. We are called to consider all aspects of life as part of our human journey. As a community of believers, we are the Body of Christ in the world; we create sacred spaces that are accessible and welcoming to all people.
The story we tell is God's story, recounted through individual and communal stories. These tales serve to celebrate our achievements and struggles and to stretch our awareness of the sacred. The collective wisdom of our stories, when told and when heard, offers the possibility for reflection and transformation both individually and as the Body of Christ.
Celebration is important to our health and fulfilment. Celebration marks the critical stages in the narrative of our lives. Celebration identifies and honours our role in the family, community, and society. In the church, we celebrate in the context of God's unfolding and constant presence.
We believe the church is called to celebrate the milestones of older persons, their struggles and achievements, their faith, wisdom, and humanity through ritual, worship, and pastoral care. We recognise God's presence in the moments of hope and despair, joy and sadness, doubt and trust. The church is called to celebrate God's active presence and calling throughout life.
The overarching love of God challenges us to be accountable, choosing life and growth in our time. Out of the wisdom and experience of older adults can emerge a deepening sense of interconnectedness to God's universe and to the generations who follow. For many, this love and concern for younger generations, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, call us forth to be agents for a changed relationship with creation. In an age which bears the cries of a broken earth, older adults, whose own generation contributed to the pollution of the earth, have a fundamentally critical role to play as sentinels of healing and restoration. From recycling to petitioning, many older adults are now proactive participants, calling every generation to honour the integrity of creation and to repent our human arrogance and destruction.
The gospel requires us to live out the great commandment of Jesus -- to love our neighbour.
The active elderly are a valuable resource pool of experience and knowledge, providing numerous volunteers to help carry out the church's mission of service to others. This action force of elderly volunteers enables congregations to reach inward and outward in the work of caring by devoting innumerable hours to visiting the sick, the lonely, the disabled, the hurting. Senior adults are an important part of the church as they work in local, regional, and national organisations, creating and maintaining healthy communities.
The demands of justice and loving service require our recognition of and action against all evils that afflict the elderly. Elder abuse -- physical, psychological, financial, or spiritual -- may be perpetuated by individuals, family members, or institutions. There are ways in which pastoral care teams and ministry personnel can be trained to recognise abuse, to intervene appropriately, and to strategize to change institutional or government policies that lead to elder abuse.
We repent the ageism that infects our society, and ourselves as part of society. It affirms newness, wellness, youthfulness as "the only good," and negates the value of the later stages of living.
As outlined by the United Nations' principles for older persons, we affirm for the elderly: appropriate and maximum independence; participation in society; health, social, and economic care; and opportunities for self-fulfilment and for living with dignity and security.
Jesus walked on the earth, journeying with people of all classes and ages. He spoke with compassion and heard the stories of the diseased, the rejected, the marginalized, and the invisible. He kept company with those on the fringes of society. For this he was crucified. The example of these scandalous friendships still calls us. The church needs to be proactive in challenging the exclusion of older persons by our own culture and our religious institutions.
We are called to celebrate and seek out the value and wisdom of older women and men so that we may experience Christ's presence in all persons. The church has at times failed to do this. The living Christ calls us to confess our failures and stand against both the marginalisation of and prejudice against older people. We need to name and take action to assure affordable housing, accessible health care, and income security for older adults. As a church, we will be enriched by welcoming the ministry of older persons; by listening to their wisdom and suggestions. Our contribution to a new heaven and a new earth takes place in very practical ways.
The society in which we live tends to deny death as part of the cycle of life. Through the small deaths or losses of our lives and the grieving that such losses trigger, we are prepared to face the fact that our life, as we know it, will end. During this time, questions often surface such as, "Why me?" and "Where is God?" For some of us, these questions are part of the process of coming to terms with death. Paradoxically, when we are able to face death, we are able to face life with an increased ability to savour each moment and a greater sense of God's grace.
Every one of us must make this journey through death. The good news is that we are not alone. We have each other to provide loving care up to the moment of death and we have God to journey with us into new life.
So we celebrate God's presence at each stage of our journey. We acknowledge the Mystery that awaits us in our dying, the Presence that assuages our fears, and the love of God that surrounds us as we pass through death to new life.
Thanks be to God!