Ageism Overcome

By Mark D. Roberts

March 25, 2024

Article, De Pree Journal, Third Third

By entitling this article “Ageism Overcome,” I’m not suggesting that ageism has been defeated in our world. Quite to the contrary! Ageism is alive and well these days, but I can envision a world in which ageism has been vanquished, at least as much as is possible on this side of the age to come.

Christians can and should be on the front lines of the battle to defeat ageism. We have been entrusted with a variety of tools to equip us for success in this battle. In this article, I will examine some of those tools so that you might be able to use them wisely and well. Not only can they equip you to contribute to a more just and prosperous society, but also they can help you flourish in your life.

Scripture Vanquishes Ageism

If your thoughts, emotions, and actions are shaped by Scripture, then you’ll be empowered to reject ageism against older people (or younger people, for that matter). This doesn’t mean you’ll ignore the challenges of aging and pretend to live in some anti-ageist utopia, however. The Bible is clear about the difficulties of getting older (see Ecclesiastes 12:1-8). But Scripture also promises that the righteous will “flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit” (Psalm 92:13-14). Moreover, many passages of Scripture affirm the honorability of older adults (Lev 19:32; Prov 16:31, 20:29; 23:22; Tim 5:1-3). Plus, in numerous biblical stories, God uses older people—like Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Aaron–for crucial works of leadership.

Even more foundational than these affirmations of older adults, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 gives us a rock-solid foundation for respecting and valuing all people, including those who are old. In Genesis 1:27 we learn that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Each human being, regardless of age, ability, gender, or racial-ethnic identity, reflects the very image of God. For this reason, each person is worthy of respect and dignity, whether that person is 1- or 101-years-old. Moreover, as people created in the image of the creator God, we are also endowed with the ability to make a difference in the world. For some older people, like Moses, this means leading a whole nation from slavery into freedom. For others, it means speaking prophetically in the final days of one’s life (Simeon in Luke 2:29-32) or devoting significant time to prayer (Anna in Luke 2:36-38).

Though some of the world’s cultures and religions do value older people, I believe Christians are uniquely equipped for vanquishing ageism because of what we learn from Scripture. This is not to suggest, however, that we always live up to our potential. Indeed, we have much to learn when it comes to understanding the Bible’s perspective on aging and embodying this truth in our individual lives and our communities.

Though some of the world’s cultures and religions do value older people, I believe Christians are uniquely equipped for vanquishing ageism because of what we learn from Scripture.

Science Vanquishes Ageism

Scientists recognize the difficulties associated with getting older. For example, a recent study by Columbia University researchers found that 10% of older adults in the U.S. have serious dementia. That’s a sobering statistic. But it also means that 90% of older adults do not have dementia. Nevertheless, it’s common for people to assume that older adults will necessarily lose their cognitive capacity. Many middle-aged adults fearfully expect that they will necessarily experience dementia as they get older.

Increasingly, however, scientific research is revealing the potential of older adults to flourish. When it comes to cognitive ability, many studies demonstrate the benefits of having an older brain. I noted several of these in my “Ageism Unmasked” article, quoting from Harvard Health: “A host of studies in the past decade have shown that the more mature brain actually has advantages over its younger counterpart. . . . Even in professions where youth is valued, testing has shown that maturity has advantages.”

Evidence for the possibility of third third flourishing comes from diverse scientific disciplines, including gerontology, neuroscience, medicine, psychology, and sociology. Individual scholars and academic centers often integrate learnings from these disciplines to encourage fruitfulness as we age. The Stanford Center for Longevity, for example, “advances a research-driven agenda that showcases the opportunities created by increased longevity, identifying actionable, evidence-based steps for enhancing the quality of longer lives from birth until death.” The Center is motivated by the vision of “a future in which all people, regardless of socio-economic status, can make the most of the advantages afforded by increased lifespan—resulting in lives infused at every stage with a sense of belonging, purpose, and worth.” There is no room for ageism in such a research-based vision.

Stories Vanquish Ageism

Stories of the lives of older adults can help vanquish ageism. Increasingly, you’ll see these stories in both the news media and social media. Consider, for example, Maurine Kornfeld. If you Google her name, you’ll find hundreds of features on this amazing woman. Why? Not only because she’s been a social worker, teacher, and art museum docent, but also because she’s a world-class, world-record-holding swimmer who didn’t start swimming until she was 60. Oh, and because Maurine is 102 years old and going strong, both physically and mentally.

I must confess that I have a love-hate relationship with stories about “super-agers” like Maurine. Yes, I love her accomplishments and what they say about the possibilities of third third flourishing. But there’s a part of me that responds to such stories by thinking, “I could never be like that.” Focusing on the amazing achievements of a few aging phenoms might not help the majority of us recognize our own potential for flourishing. Generic ageism could survive the impact of extraordinary stories.

But it won’t withstand the onslaught of thousands of stories of “ordinary” older adults who are living with purpose. In the De Pree Center’s research on folks in the third third of life, we heard from dozens of older adults who won’t ever be featured on YouTube but who are using their gifts, talents, and accumulated wisdom to make a tangible difference in their part of the world. They’re doing things like leading mission projects with their church, mentoring people struggling with addictions, tutoring students needing special help, and providing care for aging family members. I hope that, in time, the church can be a curator and communicator of the stories of such “ordinary” saints whose daily lives reveal the folly of ageism.

Sages Vanquish Ageism

When I speak of “sages,” I’m thinking especially of people that we know personally. There are, of course, wise older people whom we know only from a distance. Certainly, their prominence helps to vanquish ageism. But in my experience, personally knowing older people who exemplify inner vitality and time-tested wisdom helps to set me free from the ageist assumptions of the culture.

But in my experience, personally knowing older people who exemplify inner vitality and time-tested wisdom helps to set me free from the ageist assumptions of the culture.

Let me offer one salient example. Shortly before I became the Executive Director of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership in 2015, I had the privilege of meeting with Max De Pree. We spent several hours together, getting to know one another, talking about life, and thinking strategically about the center bearing Max’s name. In that conversation, I was impressed, not only by Max’s insights, but also by his ability to listen deeply and reflect creatively. He demonstrated both great wisdom and great humility. Oh, I should mention that Max was 90 years old at the time. Though he was struggling with some of the physical challenges common to older adulthood, Max’s mind and heart were thriving. Knowing Max De Pree helped me fend off ageism in my own life and leadership.

An Intergenerational Future
Unfortunately, in American culture today intergenerational relationships are not as common as they once were. Ageism thrives when younger people don’t have relationships with older people. (This delightful AARP video strikingly makes that point!) Churches have the potential to be one of the last and best institutions in our culture to be truly intergenerational. Yes, we have lots of work to do to make this happen. But it’s work well worth doing.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

More on Mark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *