ETHICS: Ageism and the Fear of Death

Photo: Glen Hodson, Unsplash

By Rob Merchant

Ageism allows the younger generation to see older people as different from themselves: thus, they suddenly cease to identify with their elders as human beings and thereby reduce their own dread of aging. — Robert N. Butler

Ageism, a term coined by the American psychiatrist Robert Butler in the 1960s, is a pernicious form of discrimination. Two years before his death in 2010, Butler revisited his description of ageism in his 2008 book The Longevity Revolution. He described the underlying basis of ageism as “the dread and fear of growing older, becoming ill and dependent, and approaching death. People are afraid, and that leads to a profound ambivalence. The young dread aging, and the old envy youth. Behind ageism is corrosive narcissism, the inability to accept, for indeed we are all in love with our youthful selves.”

Since Butler’s first use of the term, ageism has come to be understood as a form of discrimination that takes structural and institutional forms, as well as inter- and intra-personal ones. Perhaps the most challenging aspect for the Church is ageism’s potent element of self-hatred, denying to the person, and the community of which they are part, the journey that may be associated with a long life lived in Christ as a bearer of the image of God.

Yet this should come as no surprise to the Church. In Old Age in the Roman World, Tim Parkin quotes the philosopher Seneca the Younger, “I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall leap from a building that is crumbling and tottering.”

Concern about how we age has found more recent expression in the report “Beyond Therapy” (2003) from the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics: “The desire for ageless bodies involves the pursuit not only of longer lives, but also of lives that remain vigorous for longer. It seeks not only to add years to life, but also to add life to years.”

The desire for vigor, for youthful possibility or simply for usefulness, finds expression in Scripture in the encounter of Barzillai and David in 2 Samuel 19.31-40. Here we see Barzillai, described as “a very aged man, eighty years old” who responds to David’s invitation to “come over” with him to Jerusalem by observing the impact of old age upon his senses and enjoyment of life. He asks, “Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?”

In the lived experience of Barzillai we see old age as burden and loss — an ancient echo of what satirists such as Juvenal in the second century identify with old age, a wrinkled, sagging face, a shaky voice and limbs, a bald head and toothless gums. This view contrasts sharply with Proverbs 16.31, which says, “Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.”

Ageism causes age to be dreaded and resisted.  In 2005, the authors of “A Terror Management Perspective on Ageism” in the Journal of Social Issues observed, “ageism exists precisely because elderly people represent our future in which death is certain.” Furthermore, as Jesus observed, ageism provides fertile ground for the structural and intuitional abuse of vulnerable older people. He warned against those who consume the houses of widows (Luke 20:47, Matt. 23:14).

It is, perhaps, the “dread of aging” underpinning ageism, affecting attitudes towards older age and, therefore, towards older people, that best summarizes the lived reality of ageism. Many different types of people, including church leaders, can experience a fear of aging. A ground-breaking report on aging from the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility highlighted a need for “leaders who are reconciled to their own aging journey and who understand that ageism starts with our own fear of death and change as we grow older.”

It would appear that the Church’s response to aging is to seek to answer the gerontologist Peter Laslett’s challenge: “Neither philosopher, nor social scientist, nor individual at large has yet begun to recognize the force of the comment which will be insistently repeated: Live continuously in the presence of all your future selves!”

An inability to see the coming glory of the kingdom of God in the body and life of those experiencing age points to a poverty in the Church’s eschatological vision. Ageism not only inhibits and distorts our understanding of older people; it also distorts and disrupts our own journey of aging in Christ.

Yet we share a common dignity created in the image of the One who breathed life into humanity. Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney, in Aging, wrote, “The care of the old for the young is no different from the care of the young for the old. Real care takes place when we are no longer separated by the walls of fear but have found each other on the common ground of the human condition, which is mortal, but therefore, very, very, precious.” Perhaps when we recover sight of the common ground of our shared humanity, we might all discover a way to live in the presence of our future selves.

The Rev. Rob Merchant is director of St. Mellitus College, Chelmsford, and associate vicar of St. Mary’s, Hornsey Rise, London.


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