Aging Well: The Graying of America

 

Robert Browning wrote a poem (actually more like a philosophical text) from the perspective of a 12th century person, Rabbi Ben Ezra-also the title of the poem. He begins, "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made; Our times are in His hand, who saith, A whole I planned, youth shows us half; trust God; see all; nor be afraid.'"

Growing old is a reality of life-if we are fortunate enough to be blessed with many years on earth. How we deal with aging is a question of attitude and faith. Growing old has implications beyond who we are as individuals though, it affects health care, the economy, the church, our family, and more. If we continue to live, old age, like death, is inevitable. America is growing older. The graying of this nation, sometimes referred to as the "silver tsunami," is upon us. The first baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, began reaching retirement age in 2011. This group of 78 million has changed culture at every juncture of their life stages and they will likely affect how we interpret "retirement," too.

The website "Policy and Politics" asked the question, "Is the graying of American an economic time bomb?" A 2014 Gallup Poll reported that only 1/3 of baby boomers age 67-68 were still employed. The pollsters concluded that this indicates boomers are not staying in the work force longer than those before them. If this is true, a shrinking work force could spell trouble for America. Business Journal says there is an "impending talent vacuum" as boomers, while working longer, are still retiring at a steady pace. A 2014 Harris Poll shows that 74 percent of boomers are concerned about having enough money in retirement while 86 percent say the country is facing a retirement crisis. 74 percent of those surveyed said it was important for them to feel financially confident before they retire, and 70 percent expect to work following retirement in some capacity. Retirement, it appears, is going to be defined more as a stage of life than the end of work.

A subgroup in the boomer generation has been tabbed the "sandwich generation" because they are assisting both older children and aging parents. This means the boomer generation, which is sometimes referred to as the entitlement generation or the generation of great expectations, as a whole, will be forced to deal with pressure and sacrifice unlike they have previously known.

The cost for treating and caring for elders with dementia is growing. Alzheimer's care is projected to exceed $1 trillion annually. By 2025, one in 26 Americans is projected to live to age 100. The Council on Social Education says that 30 percent of people age 65-74 and 45 percent of those 85 and over suffer some type of dementia. By 2050, projections indicate that the number of people 65 and over will rise to 88 million, meaning that one in every five Americans will be over 65. The average amount a 65 year-old can anticipate in medical expenses during his or her golden years is $220,000.

The statistics and projections could go on and on. The point is our nation is aging and entering a time of unprecedented challenge. The largest generation in American history, the millennial generation at 95 million (age 18-34), faces even greater challenges, but they are not currently entering the retirement years.

The church today needs older people teaching, mentoring, and helping younger people as we move forward. 1 Timothy 5:1-3 gives us wisdom that can be applied to our time and our future, "Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, all in purity. Honor widows who are widows indeed."

The time in which we live is the best time to live because it is the time God has ordained for us. A change is coming in America and this country is more disconnected from Christ and the church than at any time in our history. Our population is aging. American Christians are getting older, too, but we can and should be wiser and more useful in serving God and others. We can and should encourage, listen to, and help disciple younger Christians who are not just the future of the church but part of the health and vitality of the church today.

David wrote in Psalm 71:18, "Even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Thy strength to this generation." The baby boom generation has had a tendency to think of themselves above everything else. Now is certainly the time for this generation to think more of the next generation as they enter the "retirement years." Boomers can be such a force for godliness if they know God and are committed to making Him known to future generations. If they do, we all may be able to agree with Browning that, "The best is yet to be."

James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He serves as the editor of The Baptist Courier, the official newspaper of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

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