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Ageism Has No Place In Our Response to COVID-19

We’ve all heard it. If we’re honest, it makes us feel safe. Every time we hear the virus is spreading, we remind ourselves of this one truth: COVID-19 is life-threatening, but mostly for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

I’m not old. I’m healthy. I’ve got very little to worry about. I’ll just watch another episode of Tiger King, laugh at a coronavirus meme and continue my life as normal. End of story.

Then I get a text from my sister. “My friend’s Grandpa just died from COVID and now his whole family is infected.” My heart beats faster. What was once at arm’s length feels closer. The threat of the virus seemed distant, the threat of death is lurking behind me, but I don’t want to face any of it. I’d rather distract myself with more Netflix.

I’d rather believe the lie that only old people will die in this pandemic and I’m invincible. 

Why does that make me feel better? Aren’t senior citizens people too? Don’t they deserve every opportunity possible to live another day? They’ve lived long lives filled with love, mistakes, opportunities, achievements, failures and the like, but does that make them dispensable? If not, why do those thoughts creep into my mind? What is God trying to say to me? 

Whenever we are confronted with fear, it’s easier to make it an Us vs. Them issue. Racism, sexism and xenophobia are all examples of this, but we often overlook the hidden, destructive sin of ageism.

Ageism is discrimination against someone because of their age. Like other “isms,” it has no room for nuance or individuality. The elderly population is stereotyped and used for the benefit of others. Don’t believe me? Just turn on some late-night comedy and it won’t be long before you hear the real challenges many old people face — like the risk of falling and the onset of dementia — as the butt of too many jokes. 

The remedy to ageism is to set aside the stereotypes and begin to appreciate each elderly person as an individual. When I was 25 years old, I began ministering as a chaplain in a retirement community. I had just finished three years as a youth pastor, so the demographic I was serving changed dramatically, to say the least. Of course, I knew all the stereotypes about old people: they are so sweet, they like butterscotch candy, they wear high-waisted pants, etc., but as I got to know people three times my age, I found myself appreciating the uniqueness of each person.    

Cheryl was a faithful attendee of our Sunday chapel service. She was 95 years old, quiet and seemed to keep to herself. I was surprised to receive an invitation from her to practice reading the Bible aloud together. Apparently, she had been an English professor at a local college and had specialized in oral readings of literature. She even used to teach a class at the seminary I was a student at on how to read the Bible aloud.

Feeling a little humiliated that this elderly woman thought I needed to get better at reading the Scriptures, I managed to pick up my hurt ego off the floor and show up at her apartment the following week. This was the first of a series of weekly meetings that took place over the next 18 months. 

Each week, Cheryl would ask me to read the Scripture passage I planned to preach the following Sunday. She’d offer constructive criticism regarding where I should place emphasis and how I needed to nuance the way I said each sentence. She was teaching me to experience the text, not just read it “objectively.”

To be honest, some weeks were painful. I quickly learned how terrible my reading skills were. After one meeting, I came home and told my wife I didn’t want to go back. It was too hard to be critiqued week after week. But after some encouragement, I showed up again the next week. 

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Cheryl was always ready, excited even, to work with me. She introduced me to her children as her “student.” She became a real mentor to me. Our conversations moved past the techniques of reading Scripture to issues of pastoral identity and the walk of faith. She then began reading to me: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lucy Shaw and Wendell Berry. Through Cheryl, I fell in love with literature more broadly and realized that good preachers are ones who entrenched themselves in fiction and poetry. As I graduate from Seminary this May, I can honestly say, one of the most formative experiences throughout my education were those weekly meetings with Cheryl. 

Cheryl is just one of the seniors I have encountered that have shattered the ageist stereotypes I once held. 85-year-old Joe has been a constant example of how to maintain civil conversation with people he disagrees. 90-year-old Betty has shown me how much passion an elderly person can have for social justice. 81-year-old Margaret has reminded me of what love and faithfulness looks like to children who are going through a divorce. 92-year-old John has taught me what it means to be a loyal, compassionate, and generous husband. To my shame, I didn’t expect to learn any of this when I started as a chaplain. Yet, God’s mercy is greater than my ageism. The wisdom of the aging has been His grace to me.  

Last week, 73-year-old Carol said to me, “The beauty of growing old is being able to recount God’s wondrous deeds.” Carol had just lost her job and was wondering what was next. I figured she’d be worried because she needed the money, but she wasn’t. She said the same God who provided job after job in the midst of her divorce and raising her children as a single mom will provide for her again. Her faith had genuine confidence because it had endured trials and experienced a generous God. In many ways, the elderly are Christ to young people. They have walked the path of discipleship long enough to know Jesus really is with us, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

In the midst of this pandemic, many people ask me how the residents of the retirement community I work at are doing. They assume that they must not be doing well, since they are more isolated than ever. Of course, there is some truth to that, but I have actually encountered more resilience, strength and courage amongst my residents than fear or anxiety. I’ve found a lot more fear and anxiety among people my own age. The residents I’m working with lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War and 9/11. They’ve known God’s faithfulness in ways I can only hope to when I reach their age. People my age often don’t have those same experiences to rely on in times of trouble, so it feels like all we can do is numb ourselves to the pain with more Netflix. The good news is that the memories we need to gain strength and confidence in God in times of trouble really do exist. They exist in the hearts and minds of the old people in your life. So pick up a phone, and see what God wants to say to you through them.

As young people, we have so much to gain by investing in the lives of seniors in our communities. While COVID-19 may be limiting our ability to have close contact with them, it has also reminded us of who we know that is elderly. Maybe it’s your grandparents or a member at your church. Perhaps, it’s one of your neighbors on your block. Each of them has a personality like you, each of them has quirks — things you’ll love and things that will drive you crazy — but one thing they all have in common is stories. They’ve lived through too much in their lives not to. The real question is, do they have listeners? The gift of listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone. Especially, to our elders. If you listen well, you never know what surprise God has in store for you. Perhaps, God is wanting to put to death the ageism in your heart too.

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