One of the few indulgences on our recent trip to Vancouver was catching Paul Simon’s farewell concert. We had been looking forward to this. Paul Simon (with Art Garfunkel) had provided some of the most meaningful songs to the soundtracks of our lives. And it was his farewell tour. Culminating a music career that began in the early ’60s, he sang over two dozen songs and and came back for three encores. But he is 76 years old and it showed. He could no longer hit the high notes and he sounded weak in his first few songs. He warmed up and became stronger as the evening went on but this was not the young Paul Simon singing with Art Garfunkel. Heck, he wasn’t even the Paul Simon who sang in Hyde Park in 2012 (heard it on the plane coming back). He had aged.
Another of our goals this trip was to visit professors who had impacted my life during my time at Regent College (1981–1985). We visited two of them. They were both heroes of the faith and had done so much for the cause of Christ. But one was already someway down the journey of dementia and was living in a nursing home, while another was struggling with failing eyesight and a failing memory. He said that the deterioration wasn’t gradual. One day he suddenly found himself unable to read a prayer book during worship. And one day he found himself suddenly having major lapses in his memory.
We were deeply grateful that they still remembered us. The one who had failing memory could still recall key events that we had shared. And the one with dementia held my hand for the longest time. Clearly, my friend with dementia would not be writing or speaking anymore. And the other brother may not do so again though I hear he may still dictate his writing to co-authors. I looked at my two teachers and reflected again the question of whether we treasure people when they are no longer productive.
As Colleen Carroll Campbell reminds us in her article “Seeing the Hidden Grace of Alzheimer’s“, we live in a society that worships “rationality, autonomy and productivity above all else”. This is definitely true of Singapore where I live. What happens, then, when people are no longer able to think clearly or to think at all? What happens when people are no longer independent but need constant care even with day-to-day needs? What happens when they are no longer able to produce and contribute their strengths, like writing and speaking? Are they still valuable? Will they still be loved?
Followers of Christ must answer with a resounding yes. People have value because they are made in the image of God. Period. Hence our brothers and sisters who are ageing and have diminishing powers continue to teach us, maybe not about their preferred subjects but about the value of life. I am not making light of the demands of caring for the ageing. My mum is 90 and on her own journey of Alzheimer’s dementia.
But not everyone ages with diminishing powers. Dr Houston, the founding principal of Regent College is 95 and still teaching and writing. With better healthcare many of us will live longer lives and, because of that, more of us will grapple with the health issues of ageing. We need to be utterly clear as to how the Lord views life and act accordingly.
With my teacher who has dementia, I grasped his hand firmly and told him again how much I owed him and how special he was to me and to many others. It was not one of his good days. He didn’t enter into most of our conversations. But he did say grace before we ate. And he grasped my hand for the longest time. For my other teacher, I ventured that our struggles in the winter of our lives may be God prying our hands off this life so that He can give us the next one. I also ventured that though he could no longer go around preaching and speaking, he would continue to speak through the voices of the many students that he had nurtured through the years.
And, yes, we brought Paul Simon back for three encores, not because he was singing particularly well—we could have stayed at home and listened to our Paul Simon albums if that was what we wanted—but to thank him and to let him know he was still treasured.
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too
Oh, I’m getting older too
(Fleetwood Mac, 1975)