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Mission and Aging of the Global Population


Throughout the world, many older persons look to religion for meaning in life, for opportunities to serve, and for a way to address human suffering. The achievement of long life among increasing numbers of global citizens holds possibilities for an invigorated ministry by, for, and with older persons. In taking action, older people challenge discriminatory perceptions of the aged and reveal abundant talents and capacities.

From the earliest days reported in our Scripture, the stories of our faith have looked at aging realistically but positively. Ecclesiastes 12 catalogues the physical miseries of old age with the warning to "remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come" (12:1, NRSV). Nevertheless, the patriarchal stories, depicting individuals who lived hundreds of years, expressed the belief that life itself was good and, therefore, extended life was very good. Age was presumed to bring wisdom, and the elders of Israel were looked to for guidance (Exodus 12:21, etc.), as were, later, the elders of the church (Acts 20:17). Age brings its own pleasures, including grandchildren (Proverbs 17:6), and is marked by the beauty of gray hair (Proverbs 20:29). A life well lived, that is righteous in the sight of God, gives purpose to our aging; Psalm 92 vividly pictures the righteous elderly, "who flourish like the palm tree . . . in old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap" (92:12, 14, NRSV). Those who survive to old age are, therefore, to be honored, especially one's father and mother (Deuteronomy 5:16; Mark 10:19). It can be assumed that when Paul spoke of giving "honor to whom honor is due" (Romans 13:7), he meant to include respect for older persons. A sign of the coming of the Lord is that not only young but also old shall be merry (Jeremiah 31:13). Zechariah's vision of a truly restored Jerusalem was one in which not only would once again the streets be full of boys and girls playing, but of old men and old women sitting, "each with staff in hand because of their great age" (Zechariah 8:4-5, NRSV).

Through the centuries, the church has held varying attitudes toward older persons, but the prevailing tradition accords dignity to persons in old age. This tradition underpins our United Methodist Social Principles statement on rights of the aging, in which social policies and programs are called for "that ensure to the aging the respect and dignity that is their right as senior members of the human community" (¶ 162E).

In 2002, the United Nations' World Assembly on Ageing stated clearly the demographic facts that confront this century: "The world is experiencing an unprecedented demographic transformation. By 2050, the number of persons aged 60 years and over will increase from 600 million to almost 2 billion; the proportion of persons aged 60 years and over is expected to double from 10 percent to 21 percent. The increase will be greatest and most rapid in developing countries where the older population is expected to quadruple during the next fifty years. This demographic transformation challenges all societies to promote increased opportunities, in particular, for older persons to realize their potential to participate fully in all aspects of life."

Advances in public health and education, as well as control of infectious diseases, have contributed to these changes. Nevertheless, the extreme conditions of poverty, war and hunger, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic prevent realization of the biblical hope for a blessed old age. In situations of armed conflict, combatants increasingly target older persons. All too frequently, families and other caregivers abuse older persons in domestic and institutional settings. Income support and access to health care in old age apply only to a small minority in many countries. Age and gender discrimination often blocks access to the participation and involvement throughout the world. In these challenging situations, a greater proportion of older persons now take their own lives.

Many older persons live in vulnerable situations. They live in rural areas, working the land, and are predominantly female. Older persons are heavily concentrated in agriculture, with manufacturing jobs ranking a distant second. Women outlive men in virtually all countries. Most women past age sixty-five are widows, a trend likely to continue. They suffer low incomes and chronic illnesses. Less than 10 percent of older women in many poor societies read or write. Across the globe, traditional social support based on family structures continues to erode, leaving many elders in isolation with no one to care for them in their last years.

In some developing countries, older persons attract love and respect precisely because of their experience and their place as wise leaders and survivors within the community. Contrast this love and respect with some attitudes in the United States and other Western nations that deprecates old age because it is less "productive," or because physical energy and commercial images of beauty replace spiritual energy and the beauty of the inner soul. For this reason, the United States and other developed societies can learn much from other societies.

Responding to these challenges, the United Nations, in its 2002 International Plan of Action on Ageing, recommends action in three directions: assuring older persons right to social and economic development; advancing health and well being into old age; and ensuring enabling and supportive environments.

In the United States, the great majority of older persons have access to public social insurance through Social Security and Medicare. Those in The United Methodist Church celebrate the inclusion of older persons in decision-making structures throughout the church. Appreciation for these advances does not blind us to misguided efforts to depict older persons as benefiting, at the expense of the young, to the low quality of care in many nursing homes and to outright abuse in families, institutions, and organizations that employ older persons. We must remain vigilant to keep government programs publicly available to all, free of privatized substitutes that sharply limit many older persons' access to income support and health care.

The United Methodist Church calls upon

A. Local churches to:

  1. involve older adults intergenerationally and in ways that empower and encourage them to use resources for skills, knowledge, experience, and spiritual insight; and
  2. use resources from general agencies of The United Methodist Church that suggest actions and models for learning from other cultures and countries in their understanding of and appreciation of older persons.

B. Annual conferences to:

  1. involve older adults in the full range of programs of the conference, including Volunteer in Mission (VIM) projects; health ministries in which able older adults care for the frail elderly; public advocacy; and use of resources and action suggestions from the Committee of Older Adult Ministries of The United Methodist Church;
  2. ask itinerating missionaries to speak to constructive ways churches in the United States can: (a) learn from the customs, values, and practices of churches in other countries and cultures; and (b) support older persons in other countries and cultures through Advance Specials, VIM projects, and mission support; and
  3. study the United Nations International Plan of Action on Ageing adopted in 2002 as a basis for action initiatives and guide to programming.

C. All general program agencies of The United Methodist Church to:

  1. develop resources and programs that support and undergird the faith development of older adults and encourage their full participation in ministry;
  2. identify specific actions in their ongoing programs and ministries by which families on a global basis can be assisted in caring for their frail elderly;
  3. include older persons in training for care-giving in relation to mission and ministry globally; and
  4. provide analysis and advocacy training to equip older adults to defend and expand public policies and programs that serve all elders.

D. The General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries to:

  1. advocate support for older persons' needs and capacities in governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the United Nations, the US government, and ecumenical and other nongovernmental international organizations; and
  2. study and share with the whole church pertinent issues related to the well-being of older persons, such as allocation of governmental resources for support and care, end-of-life issues, and avoidance of age discrimination in employment and community life.

E. The General Board of Global Ministries to include in mission education:

  1. positive images of older persons in all countries and cultures, along with images realistically depicting the difficulties many of these persons have under conditions of poverty and isolation;
  2. information about the "double bind" in which many poor societies find themselves by virtue of the demands of a growing young population and the demands of a growing older population; and
  3. resources for annual conferences and local churches that provide models for appropriate mission and ministry on the local level, and specific action and program suggestions.

F. All general agencies and all episcopal leadership to:

  1. include older persons as full participants in programs and ministries from planning through decision making and evaluation;
  2. seek opportunities by which The United Methodist Church can affirm its aging members, and offer ways that older members can collaborate with younger persons in evangelism and renewal of the whole church, to the end that persons of all ages are called to the discipleship of Jesus Christ; and
  3. lift the prophetic voice of Christian faith to proclaim a vision of human community in which older persons are accorded respect and dignity as those made in the image of God and part of the human family.


See Social Principles, ¶¶ 162 and 165.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2012. Copyright © 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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