There has been a dramatic shift in the life expectancy rates during the past fifty year in most countries around the world. With advances in science, medicine and technology, the change can be as drastic as twenty years in some countries.[i] This, coupled with the worldwide drop in fertility rates, has left older persons as a significant and continually growing segment of the population. On October 1st, the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Older Persons. This day acknowledges the ongoing issues facing this population around the world, calling attention to their daily struggles while at the same time, advocating for the contributions that they can make to society. For support, the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda includes goals that clearly acknowledge the impact older persons have on the future of sustainable development. Goal 3 states: Ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well being for all at all ages.[ii] The theme for this year’s celebration is combatting ageism, which means challenging the negative stereotypes and misconceptions about both older persons and the aging process in general.
So where do older persons fit in society? And, more importantly, how do they fit into the Church? The answers to both are intertwined: respect and integration.
Age-based stereotypes do more harm than damaged feelings. They impact the behaviors, policy development, and health of older persons.[iii] Despite this, they are often accepted as commonplace and spoken as truth in both the developed and developing world. In order to achieve the SDGs, however, these issues must be confronted. The process is called normalized discrimination, and it has a detrimental impact on the health and well being of this population. Older persons contribute to society in many ways, whether familial, cultural or economic. They struggle to contribute, however, when their health declines, requiring greater care and supervision, and they ultimately become dependent on society to care from them.
It can be a cruel cycle: existing and perpetual stereotypes contribute negatively to an older person’s health while poor health and inability to self-care furthers the image that they are dependent and unable to contribute to society in a meaningful way. By changing the way we view this segment of the population, we can positively improve health and mortality. Age-related stereotypes are unique from others like race, gender, or ethnicity in that they are often acquired decades prior to the person actually becoming old. Therefore, once they become an older person and the stereotypes become self-relevant, they are less likely to question their validity when projected back at them by younger individuals, a group they once belonged to and likely believed in the sentiments.[iv] For example, in the United States, the average life expectancy has increased by 27 years over the past century, with much of that being attributed to health, genes, and technology.[v] But studies have shown that much of this increase can be attributed to psychological and behavioral factors.[vi] Those with a positive self-perception of the aging process tend to live longer, on average, than those who internalize the stereotypical beliefs held by most.[vii]
In order to get past the outdated beliefs regarding older persons, it is important to determine from where they likely derive. Particularly in developed countries, the sentiment was likely born out of the social construct currently dictating how individuals proceed through life: infancy/early childhood, education/formative years, defined period of working, culminating in retirement.
With retirement, comes the assumption there is an inevitability of death, leading many to devalue this stage of their lives. But there is little evidence to suggest that older individuals cannot be meaningful members of society. Older persons are crucial to the economic and cultural growth in all societies, and their contributions must be sought and cultivated. In Kenya, for example, the average age of a farmer is 60 years old, and by supporting this population, countries can reinforce their commitment to sustainable development, while simultaneously supporting an older person’s right to live a meaningful life free from discrimination.[viii] Older persons also contribute culturally to a society’s future through child development and care.[ix] In order to properly combat ageism, we must acknowledge and buttress older persons’ potential to make positive and important contributions in and for society.
But having the ability to contribute is not the determining factor for whether a person has value. St. Paul speaks about all humans belonging equally to a single body, “The Body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body. For by one spirit we were all baptized into one body.”[x] This element of unity—sacramental and sacred in nature—is essential not only in the life of the Church but also for the transformation of the world. While we often become victims of the spirit of individualism, we must exist as one, which means, in practical terms, that we must emphasize inclusion rather than diving ourselves according to particular categories. The fractured nature of modern society makes it easy to neglect, perhaps even unintentionally, older persons. Often, the perception is that they are economically dependent, weak, frail, and therefore useless and unnecessary burdens. We must break free of our isolation and egotistical individualism and remind ourselves that we are called to coexist as members of a single body—the Body of Christ. And as such, as Christians, our calling each day is to ensure that our unity and love in Christ for each other is inclusive of all people, perhaps even those who may not share our faith.
#Individualism #Ageism #Discrimination #United Nations #International Day of Older Persons #UNSDG #Body of Christ #Faith Matters
Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.
[i] World Report on Ageing and Health, World Health Organization, 2015, pg. 3.
[iii] World Report on Ageing and Health, 218.
[iv] Stanislav V. Kasl, Suzanne R. Kunkel Becca R. Levy, & Martin D. Slade, Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 83, No. 2, 261.
[viii] World Report on Ageing and Health, 15.
[x] 1 Corinthians 12:12-13.