The Benefits of Listening to the Elderly

A few weeks ago I was driving in the car with an elderly gentleman, recently widowed, as my traveling companion. He’s a lovely, Christian neighbor who never looks at a computer. So he will not read this article. Yet what follows I would not mind at all if he knew. Unknowingly that day, he was teaching me much more than he realized.

For as we spent time in the car, you can imagine quite easily what transpired. He told stories about his life, his family, his work, and the community. Yes, because we have been friends for a number of years, many of these stories I had already heard. Some of them I have even heard numerous times before. And one or two of them were even repeated during the same car trip.

That day got my pastoral wheels turning. Why might the Lord, in his grace, cause the aged to repeat themselves as they do? What is the Lord showing us through it? Rather than rolling our eyes or thinking “Here goes Grandma again,” what can be gained from these times? Here are five brief thoughts for you to consider.

Listening to the elderly reminds them of their legacy in our lives. Typically as people age, they experience age-related memory loss even if they are spared dementia. One outcome of this condition is that they do simply repeat things. Yet there is more to senior citizen’s repetition than forgetting they have already told you a story.

Often the elderly, who no longer have the strength and capacities for life they once enjoyed when they were working, raising families, and more active, naturally spend more time reflecting on their past. They are considering their heritage and the brevity of the life they have lived. As Proverbs 29:20 says, “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair.” The elderly desire for the coming generations to remember what came before them. Spending time with them as they reflect on the past shows them that we value the contributions they have made in our families, churches, and communities. When godly old saints tell us of former days, they are fulling the words of the psalmist. “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (Ps. 71:18).

Listening to the elderly provides companionship to them. In our seminary, we have a practicum where students are trained in visitation in a Christian home for the aged. Recently a student shared with me some struggles he was facing with one resident. Every week when he visits her, she tells him the same stories again and again while at the same time not seeming very engaged with the spiritual truths he is seeking to impart.

Part of the solution we discussed was about the need to practice “having a presence” with others. The senior years can be lonely ones. The elderly often simply need someone to listen to them. Certainly in visitation reading the Bible, sharing spiritual truths, and praying are good practices and meet needs. Yet slowing down and spending time visiting by listening fills another legitimate need they have.

Listening to the elderly cultivates respect for them and patience within us. One of the chief ways we show respect to another person is by truly listening to them. We are especially admonished in Scripture to respect and pay attention to our aged parents. “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Prov. 23:22). We violate the fifth commandment when we act in the presence of the elderly as we are the ones who need the hearing aids.

Yet by listening, we attain more and more a Christian fruit that is so difficult to bear in this pleasure-saturated, easily distracted generation: patience. We show forth the love that is patient (1 Cor. 13:4) when we take the time to sit still for a bit, put the screens away, and watch a face lined with experience share with us a memory, a lesson, or a laugh.

Listening to the elderly preserves history through repetition. One thing is clear. The elderly are not the only ones with memory problems. The Bible repeatedly commands us to remember, and decries our sinful forgetfulness. We forget such things as God’s law (Hos. 4:6 ), God’s gospel (2 Pet. 1:9), and even God Himself (Is. 17:10; Jer. 2:32)! We are to read and hear the Bible over and over again, keep a weekly Sabbath Day, and repeatedly come to the Lord’s Table in order to help us remember what God has done for us in Christ.

In a similar vein, with respect to elderly family or church members, we need their help in remembering important events and lessons from the past.  The details of a story only heard once or twice begins to quickly fade. With repetition, the stories begin to stick. And we should be well acquainted with the adage regarding those who fail to learn from the past. Have you ever considered that elderly person hitting the rewind button once again may be God’s encouragement to you to not only remember but basically memorize that story or lesson for the good of you and others that will follow?

Listening to the elderly causes us to reflect on our own short lives and the eternity that awaits us. You won’t spend long in the company of a retired person before you hear him or her refer in some manner to how quickly life has gone by. Exclamations such as “My, how the time flies!” or “Where did the years go?” are common.  We should realize these expressions are also instructive. In this life that goes by as quickly as a vapor on these cold, winter days, we are being served a reminder. If God allows, it will not be long before our time comes to move from sitting in an office chair to a rocking chair so to speak.

Yet it goes beyond even that. Hearing an elderly saint speak of losing loved ones and friends, and how they are heaven-ready, also helps us look beyond this age to the one that is yet to come.

12 Comments

  1. Jerri Faris February 5, 2018 at 2:12 pm #

    I really appreciate your blog on this, Barry, and this subject truly is a passion of mine. I’m not as good a listener as I should be, and all the years spent with my husband–a really GREAT listener, especially of the elderly AND the very young–should mean I am a much better listener than I am. Even a person like my mother, one with an astounding memory for a 90-yr-old, repeats stories often! But oh, what we learn in the process of hearing them again or comparing what other family members and friends heard from he and be able to add details that maybe weren’t included in the piece we were told. It becomes quite fun for the whole family.
    I teach Small Group Communication at Purdue and developed a Service Learning component to help students practically apply the concepts taught in the course. We go into the Indiana Veterans’ Home and each group of students is assigned 2-3 residents with whom they will visit weekly, hopefully develop relationships with, and bring them the Music and Memory program which you can get a peak at here: https://www.google.com/search?q=music+and+memory+henry&oq=music+and+memor&aqs=chrome.2.0j69i57j35i39j0l3.4710j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
    These students are 90% from the school of technology, self-proclaimed “geeks” who at first plead with me not to do this project. I often hear that this requirement “is WAY our of our comfort zone!” Whether the elderly residents in the Alzheimers/dementia unit respond to the Music & Memory program or not, in the end most students report what a worthwhile experience it is and find the greatest reward is in learning to listen to and learn from the vets. Of course, we prepare through several discussions and assignments on listening–to each other and especially to the elderly. For all who struggle with HOW to do that and how to be patient in the process I highly recommend a book: Creating Moments of Joy Along the Altzheimers Journey by Jolene Brackey. It is not just for listening to people with Altzheimers (although that is who it is designed to help). It helps you discover stories that bring great joy to an older person in its telling. As you focus on what brings them joy, you will want to actually prompt those memories, often with a mentioning of a single word. And you will then learn to delight in hearing the same stories over and over!

    • Barry York February 5, 2018 at 4:07 pm #

      Jerri,

      Thank for your thoughts. Your family is a great example to me of this practice. When Van and I would get together for encouragement and prayer, he shared often of how encouraging it was that David visited with his mother.

      That’s great to hear of how you are encouraging students to visit and listen to the elderly! Thanks for sharing and suggesting the resources.

  2. William Duncan February 6, 2018 at 6:43 am #

    When I was a young man, a senior member of our congregation was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Given only months to live, he called on all the young men to come and visit him. For those of us who took him up on his invitation, it was we who benefited from the visitation. He shared with us his testimony and regrets over spending his years toiling for success in business and chasing after the wind. His desire was to share the wisdom gleaned over his lifetime. Most often we pat ourselves on the back when we visit the sick or elderly. It is they who deserve the praise for allowing us to benefit from their wisdom.

    • Barry York February 6, 2018 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks for sharing this humbling story!

  3. Bob Hemphill February 6, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    Barry, thanks for this. You presented some very good points. Bob

  4. Linda Carson February 8, 2018 at 12:31 pm #

    Excellent article! Two of my best friends died on my watch, both in their 90’s, and I’m desperately grateful for my time with them. I learned the glory of old people from my mom, who served them with great love all of her life.
    I would add, physical touch is a blessing to old folks. Often the most they get is a careful, brief hug. My last best friend, who spent his last years at the Veteran’s Home, was big and blind and his hearing was lousy. His daughters and guests always sat opposite him and yelled back and forth to be heard. My privilege was to climb onto the arm of his big old recliner ( which barely held us both), throw an arm around his shoulder, and spend my entire visit mashed up against his side. Not only could I hold his hand, I could speak into his ear, and we could communicate WAY better that way. Twice a week I heard his war stories, which became utterly fascinating as I began to put the pieces together. I had the privilege of holding his hand as he died, as we had planned months in advance. Yes, he was surely blessed by me, but OH, I cannot tell the blessings I received, and even now, ten years later, I get teary as I think of my friend, Grant. How he blessed me! How God blessed me with that friendship!

    • Barry York February 9, 2018 at 7:41 am #

      Linda,

      What a touching story that reminds us of the power of touch. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  5. grh February 9, 2018 at 1:20 pm #

    Excellent article! I’d add a couple more points:

    1- A God-fearing elderly person can provide a much-needed example of how to age in a Godly way. I’ve seen many examples of elderly friends and relatives in my life, and most of them have ended up going off the rails later in life. We need more examples of Godly elderly believers to help us younger folk see how to start preparing ourselves for old age now.

    2- The original pastors/elders in the Bible, with few exceptions, were elderly people. (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, one of the words for elder in the Bible means literally something like, “old man”? Perhaps I need correction on this…) Regardless, there’s a reason why this is the case: elderly people are more able to communicate the things of God and set an example by both their lifelong learning and experience, so we need more elderly church leaders as well!

  6. chris hutchinson February 13, 2018 at 1:54 pm #

    Beautiful article . I often think the first thing a young (or any) pastor should do when he takes a new church is to visit all the shut ins, with no agenda other than to visit and ask them for prayer. It will teach him patience, demonstrate to the congregation that he values people just for who they are (rather than what they can give back to the church), and selfishly, he will enlist a small army of saints praying for him as he begins his work.

  7. Cheah Huck Leong February 14, 2018 at 10:14 pm #

    Fantastic article and very encouraging comments. All praise to our Lord God and Jesus Christ the Son. Truly these are wisdom from God only to all who fear Him. More precious than gold. Amen.:

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Benefits of Listening to the Elderly - The Aquila Report - February 9, 2018

    […] Read More […]

  2. Food for Thought, 02.14.18 - Christ's Covenant Church - February 14, 2018

    […] The Benefits of Listening to the Elderly: “Why might the Lord, in his grace, cause the aged to repeat themselves as they do? What is the Lord showing us through it?” […]

Leave a Reply