“Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord.” —Leviticus 19:32
In reflecting on the way in which the elderly are treated in the east versus the west, I am struck by the way in which elderly people in the east are rarely shut away from their families, are often involved in the regular care for children and grand children, and are treated with great care and respect by not only family in particular, but also society in general. In contrast, people in the west often place the elderly in homes where there are lots of other elderly around, but few inter-generational friends, family members, children, and grandchildren.
In the west there is a corresponding social impoverishment by consigning the elderly to be with one another, rather than integrating them into a society and a family structure which desperately needs their wisdom, time, and expertise.
In thinking about all of this I cannot help but wonder if there is something of a circular, reinforcing process that creates more of this kind of honor and appreciation for the elderly in the east and a tragic tendency to ignore and overlook the elderly in the west. Is it any wonder that elderly in the east often grow old graciously with dignity and grace, not seeking the kind of surgical beauty treatments so common in the west? By conferring this kind of dignity upon the elderly from an early age, they become what they have appreciated and looked up to all their lives: wise, gentle, kind, and nurturing individuals with a wealth of knowledge and skills to bequeath to society in their old age.
In the west, we tend to worship and elevate youth and vigor far more than we do experience and wisdom. When youth are energetically foolish and waste their time and efforts on the pursuit of trivial ends, we think it newsworthy, “sowing wild oats,” and just going through an adolescent “stage.” Is it any wonder, then, that the aged often feel displaced, unnoticed, and unappreciated? In the same way, the cantankerousness of the elderly, the desperate attempts to hide the process of aging, the cloistering (quarantining?) of them, all contribute to a process of dishonor and lack of appreciation that is reinforced throughout the lives of people as they grow from youth to old age. Is it any wonder old people often become so unpleasant in ungracious and difficult to be with? Their entire lives they have believed and been told that old age is to be fought against, avoided, denied, and hidden at all costs. When it eventually overtakes them and they can no longer stem the tide of the inevitable, they become the very people they have not wanted to become. And so they live out and reinforce the stereotype they have continually feared and abhorred, a tragic self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating prophecy.
As Leviticus 19:32 suggests, honoring the aged is not an eastern value pitted against a western one. It is a biblical value and our attitudes toward the old reveal much about ourselves the societies we live in. Lewis Smedes said it well on page 96 of his book, Mere Morality, when he noted this: “The people that loses its will to honor its aged eventually loses its humanity.” May we honor our aged, not only because it humanizes them, but because it humanizes us as well.