For many adults, their sense of identity and significance are inextricably linked to their jobs. This changes abruptly, however, when they fully retire from paid employment. At first, retirement is an eagerly awaited event, but after months of travelling and doing the things they have always wanted to do, reality sets in. Their status has changed, their identity forever different.
Alan realised this truth when he dropped into his office a few months after he had retired. The old colleagues waved him a cheery hello but they were all absorbed in their own work and deadlines. Somehow, things were not the same anymore … he almost felt as if he were intruding! Retirees and older adults often find themselves unprepared for this adjustment. Unconsciously, an elderly person may even try to compensate for his loss of usefulness. A friend mentioned how his father drives the family members up the wall. This is because the father can no longer drive but, as a passenger in the car, he keeps giving instructions to the driver! It’s therefore good and wise to prepare for the inevitable changes that retirement and age will bring. A prudent man gives thought to his steps, as we read in Proverbs 14:15.
To My Fellow Elderly Friends
In our later years, besides looking after our physical health, it would be helpful to seriously consider a retirement vocation. Christian retirees need to reflect on these questions:
Now that I'm freer, unhindered by schedules and responsibilities, what is God’s plan for me in the here and now? Surely God can guide me to new opportunities where I can give my time and energy to serve as well as enjoy the company of others?
This spirit of volunteerism might not come naturally to everyone, though. Perhaps we have become used to receiving some forms of remuneration for services rendered, so it will involve a change of mindset. However, as we do it, we will find to our amazement a renewal in purpose and a regaining of fulfilment in our lives.
To the Young(er) Ones
It would be timely to remind ourselves that seniors need to be reassured that they can still make some small contributions and be an asset to the community around them. Those of us who are more conscious of this need for significance among the elderly can do a lot to encourage them. Just try pausing to chat with any senior person sitting alone by himself. You can almost instantly see the flicker of life returning to their eyes as if to say, “someone noticed me, I'm still important enough”. This will go a long way towards restoring confidence and a sense of well-being for them.
A Perspective Shift
It is obvious that if the emphasis is just on what seniors can do, their contributions will not be sustainable because as seniors age, physical frailties will increase with each passing year, social contacts will diminish and their energies are bound to give way. What happens then to this need for purpose and meaning when an elderly person reaches the old-old dependency stage?
I read of this frail, old man who asked his adult daughter one day, “What good am I now? I no longer can contribute towards anything. Please pray for God to take me home.” For a while, the daughter struggled for an answer. Then, hesitantly, she replied, “Pa, perhaps you can be an example for us of how to be old … and how to die. As well as how to pray and love at this stage of your life.” What powerful words of revelation from the daughter! Because if the emphasis is on the imparting of spiritual values such as love, kindness and godliness, there is still scope for the senior person to feel useful!
Yes, amazing as it sounds, the elderly can still contribute even in their season of dependency, provided they choose to believe so. I remember in one of my visits to a nursing home, there was a frail Indian lady who had lived to 100. Someone in the team had brought along a small cake to celebrate with her. This was the first time I had met her and she was so cheerful. I was particularly drawn to her eyes … they seemed to be sparkling with life and love. I was reminded of what I had once read, “that a person who is bedridden can still love with her eyes and someone who is blind can still love with her touch and voice”. These are folks who can no longer go out to perform some socially useful service. However they can still inspire us (the observers) when we see the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27–29, God chooses the weak things of this world to confound the strong so that no one may boast before Him. And what “weaker thing” than a frail, bedridden person? In the Scriptures, the elderly are often graced by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Think of Elizabeth (Luke 1:24–25), Simeon (Luke 2:25–32) and Anna (Luke 2:36–38) among many others. The transformation starts when we stop being so wrapped up in ourselves and remember that, ultimately, our significance will found in God alone.
Chuah Tong-Ik, author of Help! I’m Growing Old, grew up in Taiping and had his tertiary education in Australia under a Colombo Plan scholarship. He has worked as a lecturer and pastor. Chuah is married to Siew Hua and they have three adult children and four grandchildren. Now retired, he resides in Penang, Malaysia.