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 no longer have the strength and capacities for life that they once enjoyed when they were working, raising families, and more active. Naturally, then, they 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.