We need our elderly neighbors

January 27, 2021

Almost 70 years ago, he asked his parents for 20 dollars so he could marry the girl he loved. He chuckles as he recalls only needing half of it for the wedding—they spent the other half on their wedding night for the fanciest dinner they ever had. When they were younger, they enjoyed traveling and finding adventures. Now neither of them drive. 

The past year, the year they both turned 90, was one of increasing need for them. They required hospital care multiple times because of heart surgery, a stroke, and an infection. Recovery has been hard, as they’ve found themselves unable to perform tasks they’ve been doing their whole lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has also heightened health concerns for them, making them dependent upon others now for most anything that happens outside of their house. 

The pandemic has shed light on the plight of such elderly people. It’s forced many Americans to consider how much the elderly need others, as they’ve helped their family members with the unique needs associated with aging. But we still often overlook the fact that the elderly don’t just have practical needs––they have relational needs too.

There are countless stories of precious older souls withering away in isolation because of the pandemic, unable to see their family and friends for weeks or months. The stories of loneliness and longing are heart-wrenching. They need their families, friends, and neighbors. They need their pastors and fellow church members. But have we considered how much we need them?

When a 78-year-old friend found himself without a place to live for several weeks, we invited him to stay with our family. His health and memory didn’t allow him to contribute to the household in measurable ways, but he gave us something more in the lessons he taught us about life and what it means to be human. The children enjoyed his singing and giggled at his ability to nap anywhere, anytime. My husband and I flourished under his encouragement and kindness. And his open-handed generosity with everything has convicted me of my own selfishness and greed. Our hearts have softened toward others as his love for us has helped us love better. 

The end of a long life can seem impersonal when spoken about in clinical terms. But when you love a person with declining health in their old age, the deterioration of the body is not impersonal––it’s human, and points us to our need for a Savior.

There are also my 90-year-old neighbors, who have lived a full life surviving wars, economic crises, life-threatening illnesses, and heartbreaks. They’ve been married for more than 65 years and have raised children and enjoyed grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They understand a lot about life, about what matters, and about how to love others. The good advice that they frequently offer isn’t full of platitudes or clichés. When they tell me something, I heed their wisdom for it’s stained with blood, sweat, and tears.

I especially love when our older friends tell us about the past. One of our friends told the story of  being one of the first African-American students at a local high school when our city’s schools integrated. Other friends have shared stories about life before their childhood homes had electricity and running water. But we don’t just learn about history from the elderly. We learn about suffering and pain, contentment and joy. We learn about a life well-lived.

We’ve also learned some new vocabulary, and my kids learned about dentures when they helped a friend search for hers. We’ve learned about nursing homes, Medicare, strokes, broken hips, and heart valve replacements. The end of a long life can seem impersonal when spoken about in clinical terms. But when you love a person with declining health in their old age, the deterioration of the body is not impersonal––it’s human, and points us to our need for a Savior.

Adulthood can bring with it a false sense of security. We believe success and happiness are ours for the taking. But in spending time with the elderly in the last stages of life, all pretenses of our strength and righteousness are removed. A failing body is not something anyone would ask for, but it reminds us of our need for Christ. There is good news for the elderly; there is good news for those whose hearts ache as they watch others suffer in old age. Our strength is fleeting, our power temporary, and our independence is false. But we have a Savior who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Our bodies may age and break and fail, but when Jesus faced death, he defeated it. 

The past year has made us painfully aware of the fragility and brevity of life. When we are most vulnerable, broken, and hurting, then are we able to see how badly we need the redemption offered only through Christ. Our culture values—even idolizes—youthfulness. We fear aging so much that we do everything we can to avoid it. But unless we die young, we too will one day be old. Let us be a people who are thankful for every breath the Lord grants us, and let us love and value those whose breaths far outnumber our own. 

Jessica Burke

Jessica Burke is married to her high school sweetheart, and they have four children. The Burkes lived in Skopje, Macedonia, as missionaries for three years before moving to North Carolina where Jessica’s husband is a chaplain at a local jail and a pastor. A former public school teacher, Jessica home educates her … Read More