It was impossible to tell how old this woman was—she had barely said a word since being moved into the senior rehabilitation center a few days before—but when her dentures were out, she looked a lot older. She died on Saturday, despite the best efforts of her caregivers.
They delayed taking her remains from the poorly lighted room and its impersonal gray walls until they could locate her next of kin. But they found no one. No funeral home would take her body, and eventually the coroner was called. The only thing the woman left behind was the stench, but a thorough room cleaning would take care of that.
Too many of our old people are living and dying alone. That includes those fortunate enough to be members of senior living or retirement communities. According to a study conducted by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, 85 percent of independent-living residents at one facility say they experience moderate to severe levels of loneliness.
And loneliness can kill.
“Loneliness rivals smoking and obesity in its impact on shortening longevity,” said Dilip V. Jeste, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the school. “It is a growing public health concern, and it’s important that we identify the underlying causes of loneliness from the seniors’ own perspectives so we can help resolve it and improve the overall health, well-being and longevity of our aging population.”
And the population is aging, at an accelerated rate. A 2018 report of the Census Bureau predicts that by 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older—including every member of the baby boom generation. The number of all seniors 65 and older will hit 77 million by 2034.
“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history,” reports Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the Bureau. As part of this trend, the number of centenarians increased from about 53,000 in 2010 to more than 90,000 this year. Their ranks most likely will reach 130,000 in the next decade. By 2060, we can expect 600,000 centenarians in the U.S.
According to a study conducted by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, 85 percent of independent-living residents at one facility say they experience moderate to severe levels of loneliness.
This silver boom is occurring because people are generally healthy and living longer, and medical technology has greatly improved. “Many people who are in their 60s today are much better off than 60-year-olds from the last century,” the Quartz news site notes. “But still, the American Association of Retired Persons estimates that about half of all people over 65 will need some kind of long-term care, whether it’s an in-home caregiver, an assisted living facility, or a nursing home.”
And that can be expensive. Assisted living communities and independent living communities can charge anywhere between $1,500 to $6,000 a month in rent and other services—including meals, laundry, on-site medical staff, and recreational activities. Continuing care retirement communities, or life plan communities, allow residents to stay in one place while they age. Such options may cost $100,000 or more just to get in—necessitating the sale of one’s home—in addition to monthly service fees that can hit $5,000.
For those who cannot afford such pricey care, the options are usually much grimmer—such as county nursing homes where the constant smell of urine is accompanied by low-paid, jaded staff, where the aged may sit open-mouthed and unseeing, ignored for hours on end in crowded hallways. Some cry out, “Help me!” but are routinely ignored. Some die unattended and unloved, their corpses shipped to the morgue for disposal God knows where.
In a utilitarian culture obsessed with youth, beauty, and seemingly endless life, the aged and dying are an unwelcome and affronting memento mori. Sometimes, of course, the old among us are quite capable and full of proverbial wisdom.
In a utilitarian culture obsessed with youth, beauty, and seemingly endless life, the aged and dying are an unwelcome and affronting memento mori.
In my book Victorious, we see a middle-aged and older Corrie ten Boom hide Jews, stand up to the Nazis, spread her message of faith and reconciliation around the world, write dozens of books, and become the inspiration for a film beloved by millions. But we also glimpse this same Corrie, frail and felled by a succession of strokes, confined to her bed, unable to do much of anything but pray—“useful” no more.
Then we see her caregivers—Pam and Lotte—minister quietly and consistently to this former world traveler, to the very end. Even more, we catch a glimpse of the ineluctable connection between suffering and glory in the Christian life.
In the church’s first centuries, the world saw something of this when Christians took in babies left to die of exposure, who treated women with dignity, who cared for the sick and dying amid gruesome plagues. As the church historian Eusebius noted, “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.” As the impious Julian, the last pagan emperor, noted, “[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well.”
Given the reencroaching paganism of our day, there is a place for apologetics, and we should offer the culture our best. We will not win our neighbors without a solid intellectual foundation. But given the growing needs of an aging nation, we must offer ourselves, too. We must invite the sick, old, and dying—like our spiritual forebears—into our hearts, homes, and services.
And when they are no longer able to come, let us go to them, without apology or hesitation. Some researchers say they are not spiritually receptive. But have we really tried to reach this huge and growing cohort?
We must try. After all, the fields are silver unto harvest.
Stan Guthrie is author of Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place.