He sits in his chair and just looks out into space. He sees what is happening in the room, and when someone speaks to him he answers. But the old spark of interest is gone. He confessed to me that he has difficulty in following my conversation. He loves Christ and the Church and spent half a century in the ministry, but now even this seems to be of only passing interest. Radio and television mean nothing to him. He seems very lonely.

This man, my father, is only eighty-six. (I say “only” because with each passing year thousands more people are living beyond that age.) When the pastor comes to call on him, how shall he deal with him? Every pastor faces this challenge of ministering to elderly people.

A few years ago the then president of the American Medical Association reportedly told an audience that within the lifespan of some of them, the average life expectancy for Americans could well reach 100. Then he went on to say that the problem is not so much keeping the body alive as it is keeping the mind functioning.

We who have the privilege of ministering to people need to take care that in this increasingly youth-oriented society we do not forget the aged. They have some very particular needs. First, they, like everyone else, need to be treated as individuals. They do not want to be lumped into a group and classified as “old people” or “the elderly.” I remember very vividly a time when my mother, then in her eighties, said with gusto, “I don’t want to move into that home and live with all those old people!”

Elaine Cumming and William E. Henry in Growing Old (Basic Books, 1961) speak of the “disengagement theory,” in which the process of aging is understood in terms of the degree of relationship to people and events that a person ...

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