Acton Institute Powerblog

A country for old men: Why American communities need the elderly

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For those in their twilight years, work has not reached its culmination, but its exaltation. As community life continues to decline, America needs the leadership of older generations. […]

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America is facing a crisis of community. The prevalence of social media is threatening human relationships. Religious detachment is leading to declining civic participation. Politicians and central planners are increasingly expanding their reach in American communities.

As the nation desperately searches for solutions to the problem, our leaders may be overlooking our nation’s greatest asset: retirees and the elderly.

America’s older generations have a cultural, moral, and spiritual obligation to be the working and teaching vanguards of their local communities. Overlooking their central, crucial role to societal health does a grave disservice to all age ranges, splintering communities and spiritually impoverishing churches.

For those in their twilight years, work has not reached its culmination, but its exaltation. Is truth really lost on the old, as one singer recently put it? It shouldn’t be.

Charles Spurgeon, the 19th-century preacher, spoke to this responsibility in an 1867 sermon:

Some of you are getting grey, and your day cannot be very very much longer. Eventide has come, and the shadows are drawn out. Now, you must not make the infirmities of old age an excuse for being altogether out of harness. The Master asks not from you what you cannot render, but such strength as you still have, give to him “while it is day,” feeling that you must work the works of him that sent you.

For the elderly, now is the time to share truth and train the young in their wisdom. And for those who feel they don’t have much to offer in the way of wisdom, there are countless opportunities to love and build relationships with those God has placed in their path.

This is a Biblical requirement of discipleship and the time-honored role of elderly men and women: to be gatekeepers of the traditions and purity of their communities. It is a duty, but also a position of great honor and deserving of high respect.

And this is the role that modern American society has rejected.

A recent pre-pandemic study found that nearly a quarter of American adults 65 and older were socially isolated. The same study found that this social isolation was linked to quantifiably larger risks of early mortality. This is not just the foibles of a single generation, though: Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam writes that “each generation that has reached adulthood since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than its immediate predecessor.”

Unfortunately, this cultural decline has largely been mirrored in the American church. Wendell Berry once praised Amish communities for the fact that there are “no institutions except family and church. The church is the community.” This extreme is so far removed from most modern American Christians that we cannot comprehend it. Instead of representing the sole community, church is not even a primary community for many modern Americans, instead serving as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage we make for a few hours every week away from our lives.

Within those diminished hours comes age stratification. Far from the crucial, mutually supportive roles tasked to each age and gender in the church, as described in 1 Timothy 5, our modern worship tends to segregate by age in Sunday School, worship, Bible studies, and other extracurricular activities. No longer are we “all together” in life and worship.

This age stratification may not apply in every church or community, but where it does, it is neither biblical nor healthy for the members, whether young or old.

So what is there to be done?

Psalm 92 is both a timeless metaphor and a didactic lesson. The psalmist describes the flourishing of the righteous as palm trees and towering cedars, planted in the holy temple of God. The righteous are not described as pigeons who perch on the steeple for a brief chat once a week; they are deep-rooted timbers. They “bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.”

Wes Jackson, a secular Kansan author, once envisioned turning abandoned school buildings into similar forests of intergenerational learning, “a partial answer to the mall, a place that might attract a few retired people, including professor types, who could bring their pensions [and] their libraries.” This is a noble view for community engagement. Just think about how much more meaningful this could be in churches.

Imagine churches whose classrooms were not empty during the week, but filled with older men and women engaged in productive work, study, and song. These rooms would become holy factories of output – hymns, poetry, crafts, essays, reflections, art, music, and most of all, consistent mentorship to younger generations. Instead of being a mere Sunday routine, the church could become a home where the elderly regularly go to create, reflect, and teach in their last moments. A final outburst of joy. A place of meaning, purpose, and worshipful work.

This is just one example of an actionable step for church leadership to take. For churches, and for wider communities, it is crucial to remember that the elderly should have a place in society that goes beyond meeting their own needs and those of their grandkids, let alone signing up for the radical segregation by age of trendy “continuing care retirement communities.”

We need the elderly; and to fulfill a key part of their life’s work, they need us too.

Jeremy Ward

Jeremy Ward is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2021 Emerging Leaders class. He is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina Honors College, where he majored in Economics. Upon graduation, he was given the top economics award for his class by the Darla Moore School of Business. A native of Lowrys, South Carolina, Jeremy’s passions in life are playing the banjo, farming, and reading Joseph Schumpeter.