According to Time magazine, it is the nation’s largest special-interest group: 27 million strong, with an additional 8,000 dues-paying members joining every day. Its membership crosses all racial, social, and economic boundaries. And not surprisingly, it is probably the group that this year’s presidential hopefuls must reckon with in their quest for the nomination.

The group is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and it is riding high on the crest of both a demographic trend (America is getting older) and a growing self-awareness among its millions of retirees that “we are somebody.”

Not unlike the groups that champion women, blacks, Hispanics, and a hundred other peoples and orientations, the united approach of AARP has forced attention on a societal segment long ignored—or in this case, kindly put out to pasture. Moreover, it has offered its constituency an agenda that, in turn, has given something of a meaning to and purpose for being—twin essentials our youth-oriented culture has lost sight of in its avoidance of aging and, ipso facto, death.

Yet, for all its good in providing political clout and essential services for America’s retirees, the AARP and other groups of its kind should not be perceived to be the final answer when it comes to our understanding of aging. In the midst of all the struggles over social security allowances and federal support for nursing-home care, the larger questions over the role of the retiree in society and the responsibilities of the generations remain. As ethicist Daniel Callahan writes in Setting Limits: “The place of the elderly in a good society is an inherently communal, not an individual question. It goes unexplored in a culture that does not easily speak the language of community and mutual responsibility.” Thus he concludes that our society “is more comfortable with worrying about improving the lot of individuals than coping with intergenerational responsibilities. It is more at home in struggling to maintain freedom of and financial support for medical research on aging than in asking how that freedom ought wisely to be used.”

As a result, we may well be standing on the brink of a crisis of aging.

Aging As Illness

America’s misapprehension and misunderstanding of aging is hardly unique. As author Simone de Beauvoir points outs, the timeless myth of a fountain of youth could only have been motivated by the fear of old age: The idea of living forever is not attractive unless you can also be forever young. More to the point, nineteenth-century novelist Victor Hugo wrote: “The misery of a child is interesting to a mother. The misery of a young man is interesting to a young woman. The misery of an old person is interesting to nobody.” Complicating this ageism in our own day is modern medicine. Expanding life expectancies and assuring good health for an increasing number of men and women over 65, medical technology has made curing more important than caring—and what greater enemy stands before its multiple wonders than aging and, ultimately, death?

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The medical onslaught against the “disease” of aging is guaranteed to grow as baby boomers enter retirement years. As Time reports, since 1900 the total U.S. population has tripled while the number of elderly has risen eightfold. And as today’s baby boomers move into their fifties and sixties early in the next decade, these numbers will explode further.

Our perception of aging as “disease,” therefore, has clouded our understanding of the role of seniors in society, and their relationship to other living generations (and vice versa). What is the justification for life that is neither youthful nor middle-aged? Writes Callahan: “Older people today are encouraged to strive for the physical health and self-control [one could add political clout] previously attributed to the young and middle-aged. Underneath this vision of ceaseless activity, spurred by the illusory promise of scientifically abolishing biological aging, lies a profound failure of meaning.”

Aging As Service

The church has done little to battle the ageism that groups like the AARP work to combat. Nor has it offered alternatives to the generation-bound stereotypes (Sun City, unlimited golf) that retirement living has taken on in recent years. Yet, not surprisingly, it holds the key to a communal understanding of aging based on agape rather than eros.

We must begin by redefining retirement in the light of service. It is not simply a return to preadolescence with responsibility a thing of the past. It is a reassignment: an opportunity to reschedule priorities and settle into new patterns of service (such as volunteer work) as well as schedule the rest and relaxation that were once difficult due to time restraints and work commitments. To be sure, that is a simple rehash of the biblical mandate to serve. But it is one that has been lost by those on both sides of 65 in the prevailing individualism.

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And what kind of service? Americans at the turn of the century, according to historian Thomas Cole, saw old age as the completion of a pilgrimage, a time of preparation for death, but also a time of service “by virtue of that very preparation” to family and community. Aging, then, had both a practical and spiritual dimension in its service—as it should today.

Practically speaking, it was a time to pass along the family heritage and offer anyone willing to listen the accumulated wisdom gathered in those 65-plus years: time-tested insights on everything from how to raise a family to how to ride a bike. Much of this was and is done in the context of family. And indeed, the role of grandparents has increasingly gained the attention of sociologists who see them as a vital link keeping family identity and history alive in single-parent households today.

Spiritually, the witness of and wisdom in a consistent walk with God is a legacy the church can ill afford not to take advantage of. “Teach us to number our days,” implores the psalmist (Ps. 90:10–12). Explains Tim Stafford in his forthcoming book on aging: “We are to number our days in this long, brief life, to insure that none goes missing—that we do not squander the gift of God, through carelessness letting days or weeks or years slip away unnoticed, without profit.” Indeed, as a former editor wrote in a recent Christian Century, retirement is not the end of being, but the continuation of becoming the perfect reflection of Jesus Christ. As such, the individual becomes a role model of what it means to live—and die—in Christ.

That was well understood by a large church in the Chicago area that, 15 years ago, asked a woman in her sixties to form—of all things—a young couples class. She did. Today that class has over 200 members—many of whom remember that woman (now in her eighties) as a spiritual parent.

No man, no generation, is an island. And while groups like the AARP will be an important united voice keeping bureaucracies and decision makers honest and alert, it will be up to the church to provide the sum and substance of life after 65: life based on selfless love and service, peer-to-peer, generation-to-generation.

By Harold B. Smith.

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