The Aged: Wisdom and Honor or Weakness and Decay?

“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.


9 thoughts on “The Aged: Wisdom and Honor or Weakness and Decay?

  1. Mark Suredhran

    Thanks for this write up, It is a good reminder. Met my 92 year old dad today to waste time with him. Now I know I did the right thing. Unfortunately the East is catching up with the West in this regard.

    1. Bob Townsend

      Thanks, Lewis, for your wise and appropriate comments on aging in the East & West. Living here in the West (CA), I must confess your remarks to be true and a gentle exhortation to us (me!) here in this part of the world. I am grateful to you and strive to be “eastern” in my relations with the elderly here in the West. -bt

  2. Rev. John D. Boatman

    I enjoyed reading your commentary and generally agree with it. I have long thought that we Westerners just don’t get much of the Bible’s teaching. We tend to read the Bible from an individual perspective, not understanding the corporate nature of life in the East. For Westerners Christianity is too much about Jesus and me, rather than as the community of faith and practice that is at the heart of our Eastern-based Bible. The way we relegate the aged to segregated holding units is just one more sad and tragic example of how we miss the Eastern mindset at the heart of the Scripture. Rev. John D. Boatman

    1. Bob Townsend

      I appreciate Pastor John’s comment about we, here in the West, missing a lot of the Eastern (Middle-Eastern) social mindset context.

  3. Yohann Injety

    Thank you for those insights both challenging and convicting. As a second generation american born to parents who were both immigrants from India I know first hand the contrast you describe about how aging and the elderly are viewed in the east compared to the west. I was raised in large part by my grandmother who came to live with us while we were growing up and I cannot quantify the value of her time and influence on me in those childhood and even teenage years. I love the photo of that lady you chose, such a great picture of the energy and vitality of age and wisdom. The face is wrinkled and worn but the eyes are bright and full of life that only a sense of dignity, grace, and purpose can produce. I hope I look that good when I’m her age! (spoken like a true westerner) Thanks for a great blog Lewis.

  4. Jonner

    I would probably want to see statistical data about whether or not older people are more or less grumpy in the east, as I imagine attitude and grace are cross cultural, however I tend to think along the lines that the statistics might back you up.

    These cultural differences consist of the focus of the east on the family, and the west on the individual. In very early China, the government was formed around the concept of families, and the heads of each of the families reported to the emperor, so the concept and importance of family to at least Chinese families, I don’t think a westerner can truly comprehend. The benefit of focusing on the family can, however, often lead to pressures that our society does not face, such as suicide, and covering up abuse in order to “save face,” to name a couple.

    I imagine that the tendency to treat people as products in an industrialized era contribute to our “sophisticated” way of treating the aged here in the west. I am convinced that at least in this area, the east has the advantage, and the more biblical way of treating our elderly population.

    I have, since even my teenage years, respected my elders. I like the John Denver song, one line of which says, “It kind of turns me on, to think of growing old.”

  5. lewinkler Post author

    I like the respect for my age that I get here in Singapore. It takes some of the sting out of aging. I will often get a seat on the bus or train. I am wiser than I was 10 years ago, so I need to share that, especially with people who want to hear!

    I love to watch how they honor their elderly here; it touches my heart. I’ve learned so much from Asians in this.

  6. Liz Cloud

    Thank you Lewis. What an excellent reminder! I am of Mexican decent as far as I can remember we take care of our elderly too. I took care of my maternal grandparents each until they passed. My mom is 85, has many health problems. Her mind is going. She’s not the mom we grew up with as the dementia takes it’s toll. She lives with me and one of my sisters going back and forth between us every four months or so. It takes a lot of energy for us to tend to her needs and wants, she is a high maintenance person. We do our best to honor her. Sadly, sometimes we fail. She always accepts our apologies, she is gracious that way.
    I’d wondered why she still wants to wear make-up, keep her weekly hair appointment, dress as if she is much younger. She is styling! You answered my question. Our western cultures addiction to being youthful, have you ever heard of store named, “Forever 21”? A clothing store that no matter how old you are has ‘young’ clothing that will fit you…
    Thank you again!


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