The Changing Role of the Elderly in Society

Dr. Robert Ritzema

February 3, 2019

Where do the elderly fit into modern society? Were they better off a hundred or two hundred years ago than they are now? Are they content with their status? And how do our families handle their older members?

The answers to these questions are complex. It turns out that most older adults aren't particularly troubled by the ways in which their lives are different from what they were in traditional societies. Still, something valuable has been lost--something that can be overcome if they and their families resist the cultural currents that lead both younger and older generations to lives of disconnection and isolation.

Historical Perspective

Let me explain. As historian Thomas R Cole describes in The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America, the place of the elderly has changed a good deal through the years. When the U.S. was largely agrarian, wealth consisted mainly of land, and older and younger generations worked together to harvest the bounty that such land produced. The culture was largely patriarchal, and the old were respected. The growth of the market economy lessened the reliance of the young on their parents’ resources, and Enlightenment ideals challenged hierarchical arrangements. Age no longer brought automatic respect in the community, and the young often left their parents behind to pursue success elsewhere.

Family vs. the Autonomous Self

Older adults don't receive the deference and subservience they once did, but they may not suffer from the change as much as is commonly thought. In his book Being Mortal, physician and writer Atul Gawande suggests that many seniors like not having to work until too infirm to do so and don't mind being free from family obligations:

"The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated, and not in the way it is sometimes believed. The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. It demoted the family. It gave people--the young and the old--a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth. It's been replaced by veneration of the independent self." p. 22.

So, as Gawande describes it, older adults have gained in freedom what they lost in power. And they, like younger generations, enjoy being independent selves, selves free of constraint and able to embark on journeys of self-discovery and self-expression. Consequently, many seniors move to retirement communities in distant states, travel endlessly, or become RV-inhabiting wanderers. They've broken (or at least stretched) the ties of family and community to pursue self-enhancement.

In my work as a therapist, I've seen how these larger societal trends affect specific families. I still see some families that are too confining, where the patriarch or matriarch exercises excessive control and younger generations are stifled. More often, though, older adults and their adult children are too disconnected. The parents struggle with isolation and loneliness, while the children are adrift, lacking the direction and affirmation that they could receive from a structured family setting.

Scriptural Perspectives

Does Scripture have anything to say about the autonomous, disconnected self so valued by many today? Though Biblical writers didn't specifically address the modern-day independent self, much of what is said about the Christian life is at odds with such total independence. For example, the autonomous self is owned by no one, but the Christian has been bought for a price and is not his or her own (I Cor. 6:19,20). The autonomous self thinks in terms of its rights, but the Christian is willing to surrender rights for the sake of the gospel (I Cor. 9:7-15). The autonomous self seeks to be first, but the follower of Christ is willing to be last and to serve others (Mark 9:33-35).

So following Christ is not consistent with pursuing full autonomy and independence. Does that mean that Christians should work to restore the authority of the traditional family? Not entirely. On the one hand, the extensive instructions directed at family functioning (e.g. Eph. 5:21-6:9) presume the importance of the family. On the other hand, Biblical stories provide ample evidence of how unhealthy and destructive families can be--consider the families of Jacob and David, for example. Also, the community of believers is a new household, a family that supplants the primacy of kinship families (Eph. 2:19; Gal. 6:10).


What then of our parents and grandparents? How can our relationships with them best reflect Scriptural ideals while at the same time taking into account the realities of modern life?

Both we and the seniors in our families will probably function more independently than was typical in earlier generations. However, it would be a mistake to mindlessly pursue what the surrounding culture values--autonomy and self-enhancement. Instead, we should recognize that our freedom is not given to pursue only our own well-being, but also that of others (I Cor. 10:24)--and those others include parents and grandparents. That means that we not neglect the relationships we have with them and that we honor them (Eph. 6:2). It may mean that we provide physical care or financial help for them. We treasure the wisdom they've gained through their life experience, even as we recognize that some of them have made life choices which limit what we can learn from them.

Finally, it is important to realize that we are called to have healthy relationships with older adults beyond those to whom we are biologically related. The family of God has within it many seniors without families or deprived of meaningful familial connections by the demotion of the family that Gawande describes. They are our kin as well, and we should befriend, value, and assist them. As believers, we have the opportunity to not only affirm the importance of the multi-generational biological family but to become a multi-generational family of God, loving one another as Christ loves us.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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