Older together: The wisdom of the elders

by | May 17, 2020

Last week our conversation looked behind some of the biblical metaphors that make scripture applicable in all generations. Labels such as widows, orphans, and foreigners are much more than their simple definitions. They offer powerful lessons for us as we consider God’s view on policy and practice.

Jesus often used phrases that elevated the importance of some ideas above others. For example, Jesus would begin a story with something like, “I tell you the truth.” A reminder that what we hear next is both essential and divinely declared. And Jesus frequently cited examples of how the more vulnerable prevailed despite their disadvantages. And the underlying, foundational conclusion is that people matter a lot to God. All people matter.

In our current series, Risen, we pay attention to the inequities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And research the issues behind the inequities with an ear for ways that scripture informs us, and helps us navigate the complexities. Ultimately, we look for the faces behind the metaphors found in scripture. Then we pray, reflect, and vote accordingly.

The average age of the population in the United States continues to rise. People are living longer, despite all of the obstacles. And so far, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Is this making it even harder to follow one of the ancient laws found in scripture and conventional wisdom? The statute reads, “You are to rise in the presence of the elderly and honor the old” (Leviticus 19:32). And many of us do, when the older person is someone close to us.

You are to rise in the presence of the elderly and honor the old.
Leviticus 19:32

But as we age, our usefulness seems to decline. At least when we compare our older selves to the image, we have of our younger self. Yet scripture not only requires respect for the elderly, references to the elders as influential leaders persist.

In a 2017 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Lawrence Samuel noted that baby boomers are entering the ranks of the elderly, increasing this segment of our population by tens of millions. This means that the U.S. stands to benefit from their collective wisdom. Provided, of course, we heed the warnings of scripture. Science long ago validated the association between wisdom and aging. As humans get older, the mind further develops. 1

Dr. Samuel makes the case that older people are generally more proficient than younger counterparts in creative problem solving, life planning, and making future goals. Moreover, as we age, we have greater empathy, and we are more likely to recognize emotional clues and gauge the wellbeing of other people. Dr. Samuel calls this elderly superpower, ‘emotional intelligence.  “Memory worsens as we get older, but research also suggests that our strategy for the way that we process thoughts and information changes for the better.”

Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic is cruelly reminding us that large numbers of the elderly live in conditions that are not becoming of the respect called for in scripture. In an editorial written by Richard Mollot, Executive Director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, he writes that “Long before Covid-19, poor care and lax standards were widespread and well known.” Mr. Mollot argues that many of the over 10,000 deaths in nursing homes, caused by COVID-19, were preventable. 2

Older people are generally more proficient than younger counterparts in creative problem solving, life planning, and making future goals.

Mollot notes that there are 1.3 million residents in the roughly 15,000 nursing homes across the country. Citing specific examples, Mollot’s article highlights one of the inequalities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, 80% of the residents and staff in one Houston nursing home tested positive for COVID-19. The number of cases at this facility is four times the rate in the general population. This for-profit facility had a history of safety violation citations.

The issue appears to be the enforcement of safety standards, which Mollot argues are adequate thanks to the Federal Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987. This bill was revised most recently in 2016 to require effective infection control and prevention, including handwashing and using personal protection equipment.

Nor is the problem due to a lack of profits from medicare payments. Medicare reimbursements offer double-digit profits, according to the nonpartisan Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. Moreover, Medicaid rates steadily increased over the past decade, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care. Nursing home profits are expected to further increase under a new federal payment methodology introduced last October.

Seniors, health-wise, are more vulnerable than those younger in age to COVID-19. And LGBTQ seniors are even more susceptible. According to a 2018 article on the Association for Healthcare Journalists website, this group of seniors faces higher rates of disability, physical and mental distress, and a lack of access to services.  3

According to LGBT advocates, a lifetime of systemic discrimination and poorer health outcomes make older LGBTQ people more vulnerable. Moreover, LGBTQ Americans are more likely than others to work in industries affected by the crisis, such as restaurants and foodservice, hospitals, K-12 education, colleges and universities, and retail. Those make up 40 percent of the industries where LGBTQ people work, as opposed to 22 percent for non-LGBTQ workers

Response to the pandemic has created greater isolation, increased health disparities, and lack of support for this demographic group compared with their heterosexual peers, according to a recent report from SAGE and Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Seegert, citing a recent story in the Dallas Voice, noted that the current mortality rate among LGBT elders from COVID-19 is 15 percent. Substantially higher than the mortality rate among the general population, or even among the elderly population.

Systemic discrimination and poorer health outcomes can make older LGBTQ people especially vulnerable.

This Sunday, we focus on our country’s poor track record regarding adherence to biblical principals with regards to the elderly. As faithful followers, we are compelled to act. Consider how you can advocate for seniors. And be sure to include prayer in your options for how you can make a difference.

For more information our series, Risen, see the article, Coming up in worship on our website.

I invite you to join us this Sunday. We plan to be live via webinar, through Facebook live, or you can call (929) 436-2866 and enter the meeting number — 324 841 204. We go live at 10:30 am. You can find these links along with more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.

A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to info@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.

Pastor Tommy

1 Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D. “Wisdom is nature’s form of compensation for the body’s insistence to age.” © Psychology Today. Aug 20, 2017.

2 Richard Mollot. “Nursing Homes Were a Disaster Waiting to Happen.” © New York Times. April 19, 2020.

3 Liz Seegert. “National study finds LGBT seniors face tougher old age.” Association for Healthcare Journalists. © July 18, 2018.

A Community in Love with God, Each Other, and our Neighbors.