26 March 2024

It’s time to call out ageism

Written by Alexandra Drew

Most of us will experience ageism, writes Alex Drew, CEO of Faith in Later Life. It’s time to call it out everywhere we see it happen – and here’s what churches can do.

This article first appeared in our Social Issues Bulletin – Issue 55 which is available to download here.

When I was 14 I was thrilled that I managed to convince the cinema ticket seller to let me into an 18 movie – I didn’t use words, I just stood there looking the part. You see when I was young, I wanted to be older and look older so I used make up and clothes, and what I presumably intended to be some level of sophistication, to convince people and myself that I fitted in with the older crowd. Being taken for older or more mature didn’t just get me in places, it commanded respect. Some of my ruminations were even taken for wisdom and I was considered grown up. I loved it.

Being youthful became my goal

I don’t know when the shift happened, maybe in my 30s, but suddenly I changed my mind; I didn’t want to look older and be older anymore. I wanted to look younger and be younger.

As I started to look and feel older, the society around me was trying to convince me that being youthful should be my goal. It did this by having 13-year-olds promote anti-ageing potions; showing me how to apparently ‘reduce the fine lines of ageing’, of which of course they had none. It portrayed older TV characters as miserable and often ridiculous. Even in my circles, people began to regret another birthday and lie about their age. Suddenly forgetting why we walked into a room became known as a senior moment as if we hadn’t been walking into rooms forgetting why since we were children.

Sounds harmless, doesn’t it?

Negative attitudes towards ageing

Fast forward a few more years and I can expect to be treated differently at work, to be patronised, and even considered a burden because others in our society have been brought up with the same negative attitudes about ageing as I was. The idea is that ageing is something to be feared and that younger is better than older. 

This causes society to discriminate against older people – in subtle ways and ways more distinct. It’s called Ageism. A social construct that brings together stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. 

Ageism affects self-esteem, health, sense of purpose and how people experience daily life. It may even lead to an earlier death. Most of us will experience ageism in society, and even in the church.

It comes from poor examples set by us by others in their attitudes and use of language, it comes from fear of death and ageing, and it comes from denial – not facing up to the fact that ageing will happen to us too.

Ageism seeps into our culture when we don’t call it out.

Growing old is a good thing

It’s madness really, as if anyone can help ageing. Whether we’re three years old, or 17, 42, 68 or 91, we will all get older. That’s a good thing, God designed us to age. The Bible tells us that age is a divine blessing – it’s God’s glory revealed through his creation, you and me.

There’s no ageism in the Bible. We’re called to love our neighbours as ourselves. God has no favourites – we are all loved equally, and nobody has cause to put themselves above another. We see people like Moses, Joshua and Anna living incredible lives for God well into old age.

In the Bible age distinguishes people in a good way – the wisdom and experience gleaned over a lifetime, shared with younger generations, who are honoured and privileged to learn from those in later life.

In 1 Timothy we’re reminded not to rebuke an older man harshly but exhort him as if he were our father, and to treat older women as mothers. Jesus who regularly spoke out on behalf of those on the margins, led us in a beautiful example when he prioritised and entrusted the care of his mother to John even from the cross (John 19:25-27). A reminder that we’re to make good provision for the welfare and care of older people in our midst.

It’s time to call out ageism

It’s time to call out ageism everywhere we see it happening. It’s time for us to be honest and ask ourselves whether we are negative about ageing and at times, without meaning to, we too may have deep seated ageist thoughts. It’s time to stand up and be counted.

When we take the time to notice, we see that our communities are filled with people in later life living to the fullest; taking risks, looking after themselves, learning new things, supporting their families financially and practically, being creative, keeping fit, praying for their neighbours, and still going on new adventures.

What can the church do?

Although not exempt from ageism, the church already leads in a wonderful example – where else in society do we see such an army of older people engaged in effective preaching, mentoring, children’s work, serving on trustee boards, welcoming, mass catering, praying, and more?

But society’s culture of ageism is pervasive and has sadly managed to find its way into many churches. We subtly begin to glorify youth and count it as more valuable than later life, and we lament over ageing congregations.

When it comes to ageism, we not only have a biblical mandate to oust it, but we have a vested interest to do so – after all – we’re all getting older. 

Here are some things churches can do to help fight ageism:

  • Understand and celebrate the age profile of your membership
  • Identify and invest in the leadership for ministry among older people, and invite them to become a ‘Faith in Later Life Church Champion’
  • Promote involvement of older people at all levels and in all areas of church life
  • Promote a better and more biblical understanding of ageing and old age – to celebrate the positive aspects and dispel negative myths, views and prejudices
  • Listen to the views and experiences of older people
  • Develop activities and opportunities for intergenerational learning

I would further encourage churches to look beyond the threshold of the church, and if possible have a voice into some key issues which are compounded by ageist attitudes and are heading our way. These will have an increasing impact on us all as we age, not to mention on the mission of the church. They include assisted suicide, ‘direct cremation’, our unprepared health care system, attitudes to older people in the workplace and pensioner poverty.

Let’s stop the world from convincing us that younger is somehow better than older. Instead, let’s convince the world of God’s view of ageing; that it’s a crown of glory bestowed on us by the ancient of days himself.

Faith in Later Life exists to inspire and equip Christians to reach, serve and empower older people in every community, through the local Church. You can find out more about their ministry and how you can get involved on their website: www.faithinlaterlife.org.

Written by
Alexandra Drew
Alex Drew leads the Christian charity Faith in Later Life which exists to inspire and equip Christians to reach, serve and empower older people in every community, through the local Church.

Related articles

Stay connected with our monthly update

Sign up to receive the latest news from Affinity and our members, delivered straight to your inbox once a month.