Introduction The aging family is generally defined as the time from retirement to death of the spouses who comprised the core of the family for a particular generation. The developmental process launched by a marriage (Gen. 2:24) transformed two separate persons into a partnership – “Two are better than one” (Eccl. 4:9) – that established the foundation of the family (Gen. 1:28). With the conception and birth of children, the partners became parents, and as children grew up the family made its way through the new parent, pre-school, school age, adolescent and young-adult stages of family life. As young-adult children developed lives on their own (launching stage) they began a process that brought the parents back to a restarting point as a couple, and propelled them into the parental middle years leading to the aging stage of the family life cycle.
Although there are distinct and definable differences between Christian and non-Christian families at each stage of the family life cycle, there is a more definitive distinction in the aging stage because there is something to look forward to for the Christian family that the non-Christian family does not have. Paul alludes to this difference when he states, “I would not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope” (1 Th. 4:13). For the Christian family the “ties that bind” are not withered with age or severed by death. Rather they are the bonds that sustain the family and its members during the aging process, and form the bridge that spans the temporal and the eternal, transforming the loss and grief that attend aging and death into the hope and joy that await the living and the dead who are in Christ. Paul refers to this process as a “mystery” and elaborates its essence in detail in 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.
Aging and death have been an inevitable fact of life for every human being since the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:19), and will continue to be so until the Lord’s return, referred to by Christians as the “second coming.” Therefore no person is spared from their occurrence and no family can avoid the accompanying loss and grief. However, their nature is different for Christians and non-Christians. This difference is captured most eloquently in a line from the beloved hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” that affirms that faith in the Lord gives Christians “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” In other words, death, loss and grief are different for Christians, thus accounting for this article’s title, “The Aging Family: Prequel to Eternity.” It acknowledges that for the Christian family there is more to look forward to beyond aging and death. Consequently this article is written in the context of aging as a transition stage rather than an ending stage to the family life cycle.
The Aging Family
The aging stage of the family life cycle is being extended by the increase in life expectancy and the expanding complexities of life. Family gerontologists today point to three phases of the aging process: the young-old (65-74); the middle-old (75-84); and the old-old (85 and above). Life expectancy is about 80 years for women and approximately 75 years for men.1 This discrepancy is the reason why women make up the greater percentage of the elderly, and explains why families have more widows than widowers. This is certainly not a contemporary phenomenon in a spiritual sense, as God is presented in Scripture as the defender (Dt. 10:18) and sustainer (Ps. 146:9) of widows. The current “quality of life” figure (the age that marks the likely onset of physical and/or mental decline) is 75 years of age, a number that conveniently mirrors biblical determinants of life expectancy: “We finish our days with a moan. The length of years is 70 years – or 80 if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:9-10).
From a family development perspective the aging family tasks are two: to accept, adjust to and live in retirement; and to cope with and adjust to the process of aging with all its physical, mental, psychological and spiritual implications. Couples who reach retirement together must learn to work together in order to help each other grow through the process of aging while adjusting to change and loss that emanates from within the family and the social/cultural context in which the couple is immersed. A critical part of couple adjustment is developing interests and activities that result in self-esteem and feelings of fulfillment. In addition, preserving and passing on the family legacy also becomes an area of emphasis for aging parents.
There is no other stage of the family life cycle that is so variable and volatile. At no other time in life do joyful and painful events coincide in such close proximity. For example, marriages, births, illnesses, deaths and selling the family home (due to down-sizing) may all occur during a short time period. Change and loss related to physical decline, illness, material resources (decline of fixed income), deaths of friends, relatives and one’s spouse all prompt stresses to which the couple and family must adjust and adapt.
The marital pair must adjust to more time together and deal with the tensions produced by ending careers. Partners must deal with decrease in energy and physical capability. The prospect of dealing with loss of one’s peers and spouse are part of this stage, and the frustration and emotional discomfort of possibly having to be cared for emerges. Children now become caretakers of their parents, and the process of working out a satisfying relationship between adult children and their families and aging parents has to be addressed.2
The Spiritual Perspective
For the aging Christian family there is also the important task of preserving and passing on a godly legacy as a gift to future generations. Our opening Scripture declares that David, after serving God’s purpose in his own generation, died and his body decayed (Acts 13:36). This epitaph attests to the responsibility of leaving a godly legacy and also alludes to the reality of death. Paul in his second letter to Timothy affirmed the power and importance of the gift of a godly legacy when he wrote: “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Tim. 1:5; Ps. 78:1-8).
A godly legacy has both spiritual and relational implications. For David the impact of his life and testimony was ultimately recognized in the life of Christ who was identified as the son of David (Lk. 1:32). In addition, Paul urged Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ raised from the dead, descended from David” (2 Tim. 2:8) thereby emphasizing Christ’s deity (resurrection) and humanity (as son of David). This acknowledgement however was a culmination of David’s contribution to his own generation in that his testimony was used as either an accolade or accusation relative to the spiritual merit of the kings that succeeded him. For example, Hezekiah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David did” (2 Chr. 29:2), and Josiah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in the ways of his father David” (2 Chr. 34:2). On the other hand, Ahaz, “unlike David his father, did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chr. 28:1).
The age-related impact of a godly life is affirmed biblically in life expectancy and generational impact. Many passages connect length of life to the nature of living. Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Paul referred to this as the “first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2). Eliphaz, in his counsel to Job (wise, though misapplied), identified a long, healthy and prosperous life as the blessing of God’s correction when he stated, “You will come to the grave in full vigor, like sheaves gathered in season” (Job 5:26). Proverbs also attests to the merit of old age in a physical and family sense: “Gray hair is a crown of splendor. It is attained by a righteous life,” and “The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old” (Prov. 16:31; 20:29). But there is also a conditional side to the generational dynamic of legacy. On the one hand we are warned that the sins of the fathers will impact their children to the third and fourth generation, while on the other blessing and love will be meted out to “a thousand generations for those who love Him (God) and keep His commandments” (Ex. 20:5-6). Moses, in telling of the importance of God’s Word in the lives of the children of Israel, was most explicit: “So that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all His decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life” (Dt. 6:2). The emphasis is on enjoyment, not suffering.
The bottom line is that elderly Christians are thrice blessed in that they: are granted long life as a recognized benefit of fearing the Lord (Dt. 6:2); have eternal life guaranteed because of their faith in Christ (Jn. 3:16); and are assured that the God of all comfort will sustain them in all their day-to-day difficulties (2 Cor. 1:3-5). Aging Christian family members have the unique luxury of living a present-oriented lifestyle with a future-oriented attitude.
Now that we know that the aging Christian family has resources for the present and the future, next month we’ll look at the nature of life in the aging stage of family development.
1. Price, C.A., “Aging Families And Stress,” in P. McKenry & S.J. Price (Editors), Families & Change: Coping With Stressful Events And Transitions, (2005), Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 49-73.
2. Trotzer, J.P. & Trotzer T.B., Marriage And Family: Better Ready Than Not, (1986), Accelerated Development, Inc., Muncie, IN, p. 234.
By James Trotzer
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org