My grandmother was restless in her bed. Her long fingers plucked fretfully at the covers, now pushing them away, now pulling them back up to her chin. “Please help me,” she cried. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer,” I said brightly. My suggestion was like flicking a switch. The words tumbled automatically out of her mouth, calming her. “Time to sleep,” I said, kissing her forehead.
Dementia has addled my grandmother’s brain and made her helpless in the tide of her own anxieties. But God hasn’t abandoned her, even if her integrity of mind has. After a life lived without faith, she turned to Christ shortly before dementia struck. These days it’s God to whom she cries for help. Sometimes Psalm 121 calms her, sometimes a hymn remembered from her schooldays. When my dad visits, he sings loudly and splendidly with her, the words resounding down the corridor of the care home.
As populations age, care of the elderly is a huge concern in Western societies. Whole industries center around dementia patients and those with mobility problems. Society at large continues to search its heart to figure out how best to care for our grandparents and great-grandparents. How old is old? What do the elderly need? How can we help them to maintain dignity when health begins to fail?
Regardless of our answers, each one of us can do something simple to help an elderly person. We can visit. We might volunteer with a charity that sends “befrienders” into the homes of the elderly, or we might make plans to see a homebound family member more often. We can use a lunch break or go before church. Most of us have an hour a week to spare for someone who is aging and alone.
Here are three reasons to prayerfully consider this need.
1. They’re probably lonely.
One of the greatest challenges older people face is loneliness. Millions of elderly people live alone—they may be widowed or divorced, or their children may live far away. No longer at work and with decreasing mobility, such people find it harder and harder to make connections.
Our God is a father of the fatherless and a defender of widows (Ps. 68:5). He calls his people to care for the needy (e.g., James 1:27). Taking time to visit an elderly person, to love and befriend them, and to help them in their distress is a reflection of God’s character and an expression of love for what he loves.
Taking time to visit an elderly person, to love and befriend them, and to help them in their distress, is a reflection of God’s character and an expression of love for what he loves.
And it makes a difference. The staff at my grandmother’s care home remark on how contented she seems after family members visit, even when that visit felt difficult and distressing to us. I can’t solve all her problems, but sitting by her bedside, even when she’s half asleep, is a way of loving her as God does.
2. They’re probably wiser than you are.
Once a week I visit a 90-year-old woman who lives around the corner from the office where I work. I do so because she reached out to a charity I signed up with, saying she was lonely. She may have been looking for help, but our visits help me too. I always go away feeling good—which is at least partly because she has a far longer perspective on life. She has weathered two marriages and several big moves. She has dealt with war, heartbreak, illness, and conflict. She is still unfailingly cheerful.
If she can come out smiling, I probably can too. She has a kind of practical wisdom, a simple, kindly, optimistic approach to things. I learn from her every time I see her.
And this particular woman isn’t even a Christian. Imagine how much more encouraged I am when I go back to the church of my childhood and get to talk to Josie, who has loved the Lord for three times as long I have been alive, and spends much of her time praying (“I can’t do anything else,” she explains). As Proverbs reminds us, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness” (16:31).
Josie’s gray hair—white, really—is truly a crown of splendor, attained in the way of righteousness. Being with her makes me believe more in the power of prayer and long more to see God at work in the world. She teaches me.
3. They definitely need Jesus.
After years of faithful but seemingly fruitless witnessing, my mother saw both of her parents become Christians in their 90s. From my perspective, it seems two aspects of old age were among the things the Spirit used to bring them to faith in Christ.
First, age had stripped them of all their old routines and ways of doing things. Becoming dependent on others gives people a chance to rethink what’s important. The stereotype is that elderly people are deeply entrenched in their ways. But age also forces many people to relinquish what they once valued most. And, like my grandparents, they may come to reconsider faith.
Second, they were coming face-to-face with death. They were confronted with the question of what would happen when illness became terminal. They began to number their days (Ps. 90:12) and asked the Lord for his compassion (v. 13). He had mercy on them.
There’s a mission field in our own streets: in lonely apartments and quiet care facilities. These men and women have not been forgotten by God.
I pray he’ll have mercy on increasing numbers of seniors. Recently, I saw some cards designed to help start conversations about Jesus with elderly people. Each one had a picture, a Bible verse, and a prayer. I’m hoping I can take these as a gift for my elderly friend around the corner. “What do you think about Jesus?” I’ll ask. “What do you think of these verses?” We’ve spoken a little about God before, and I know she’ll be willing to talk. And what a hopeful opportunity it will be!
There’s a mission field in our own streets: in lonely apartments and quiet care facilities. These men and women have not been forgotten by God. Let’s be his hands and his feet to them: visiting, befriending, learning, and proclaiming.