Taking Care of Our Widows
Evangelicals are great activists. We're engaged on practially every issue. As a church, James told us to take care of the widows and orphans. Both metaphorically and literally we do. A prime example is the care given to AIDS victims in Africa, where the disease has made orphans and widows of millions.
But here in the U.S., we tend to think that the few widows and orphans we have are taken care of. Not so. A recent New Yorker article describes the way aging has changed and how we have regressed in our ability to care for the elderly. For Christians, who have been commanded to care for widows, this news comes with particular urgency: "More than half of the very old now live without a spouse." Add to that the facts that today's elderly had fewer children than other generations and those children are likely scattered across the country. In addition, medical care and nursing homes are extremely expensive. Add to that the fact that a major response to the abundance of care needed and the lack of resources available has been a major cause for advancing the argument for assisted suicide, and I think you have a major reason why evangelicals need to quickly get the activists in gear on this issue.
Because most others are not. "People natually prefer to avoid the subject of their decrepitude," writes Atul Gawande. Still, there are costs to averting our eyes from the realities. For one thing, we put off changes that we need to make as a society. For another, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to change the individual experience of aging for the better.
Gawande focuses on policy problems. Insurers don't want to pay for preventative care. Hospitals lose money treating arthritis instead of the hip replacement that might be caused by an arthritic toe which makes walking difficult. Assisted-living facilities and nursing homes are ridiculously expensive. And nurses are more and more difficult to find. We're losing geriatricians, who specialize in managing a person's decline to allow for a gradually increasing frailty instead of one big emergency that lands someone in a nursing home. Instead doctors, 97 percent of whom take no courses in geriatrics, are practicing plastic surgery. "When the prevailing fantasy is that we can be ageless, the geriantrician's uncomfortable demand is that we accept we are not."
Christians haven't been hesitant to apply their activism to stop slave trading, HIV/AIDS, or religious persecution. In many ways this seems a simpler problem. Let's do better to visit the elderly, include them in our churches, and learn from them as they navigate one of the most difficult periods of life–when they face their mortality eye to eye. Surely they have spiritual lessons to teach us about loving not the world. And in the meantime, we'll be fulfilling James's command: "Look after orphans and widows in their distress."