Beware of Assumptions About Age & Abilities

Beware of Assumptions About Age & Abilities

Jim Stinson, Former Consultant on Older Adult Ministries


“Are you out of your mind?” 

“It is time for yourself; you don’t have to keep giving to others.”

“You do know you are not getting any younger, don’t you?”

These, and many other similar responses—including well wishes that far outnumbered the somewhat negative ones—came on my retirement and subsequent announcement of an interim pastoral appointment.

I was ready for people who knew me well to tell me what they thought. Indeed, I value the friendships that allow for such honesty.

What came as a surprise was the number of people who know me only peripherally who felt they could express such opinions. Why did they feel the need to do so? What motivated them? I don’t know, but have a strong suspicion! 

Our culture, while changing in such attitudes, is still filled with ageist understandings. There are still assumptions made that there are some things older adults just cannot, or should not, do. 

“Mom is getting on in years. She should not be living alone!” (Who says so? Is that statement driven by factual evidence in her particular circumstances, or by something else?) 

“He is 80 and should not be driving.” (Is he driving unsafely, running red lights, getting lost, memory and cognition going, or something else?)

“She is in her 80s and is dating someone even older than she. There is something wrong with that!” “Is she using him for free meals, is he using her?” (Why is it normal for people to enjoy dating and even looking for a longer relationship for those under a certain age, but taboo for those over a certain age?)

Is something going on within those making such assumptions? I cannot judge. But I do know the realities of aging are different for every person. Not everyone loses their physical or mental abilities as they age; certainly not to the same degree. Like people of any age, older adults deserve to be seen for who they are and what they can do, rather than judged by blanket assumptions.

Any congregation would do well to look again at its way of being in ministry with its older members. Is it mostly what that ministry does for them, or mostly what it does with them? If it is about doing for, rather than doing with, the congregation may be short changing itself and underestimating the older adults in its midst.

We do well to constantly remind ourselves of the years of wisdom and experience that age group has to offer. Ministry to older adults may be a reflection of a cultural understanding of what it means to be old. Ministry with them offers a better chance of reminding all of us that the call to discipleship does not end with any particular birthday.

Feel free to print or share with your congregation. © 2015 Rev. James Stinson