In the 1950s African-American writer Ralph Ellison wrote the highly acclaimed novel The Invisible Man. The main character, a black man, admits he is not literally invisible, just socially invisible. Although he functions like any other human being, he is only part of the background. People don’t talk to him, consult with him, laugh and cry with him. In other words, they don’t see him. He is invisible to them because he is black.
There’s a whole another group of people who are invisible in our society – the old. I’ve seen this happen in various settings when, instead of staying for conversation, some of the elderly leave because, as one woman said, “No one talks to me.”
Possibly standing for twenty to thirty minutes is difficult. More likely too few people seek them out. And they are too withdrawn to do so themselves. They are invisible, not just then but at other times when old and young are grouped together. They, like Ellison’s narrator become invisible, living on edges of society.
I thought of my childhood when old men, in particular, were very visible, at least in church services – they always sat in the first pews to the preacher’s left, sometimes on the platform behind him. They were the ones asked to give the final blessing before the congregation left for the week of work, like Simeon in the time of Jesus. Their wise words were respected.
About a decade or more ago I wrote a great deal about aging. I spoke about the topic. I wanted people to understand that aging is not the “relentless enemy” to be defeated at all costs.
I also didn’t want people, young and old, to see aging as the time to mostly develop a play/leisure lifestyle. Even now people ask me if I have travel plans. The implication is if you’re old you travel. I tell them I don’t travel well because of mobility issues. How can I explain again and again that growing old is part of life, difficult as it may be, and requires a different agenda.
The latter years are certainly not the golden years for all older persons. Yet despite all the difficulties many of us encounter we have a contribution to make to church and society and it’s not strength and vigor. Though it’s our money, if we have it, that people want, it’s experience and wisdom we should be giving -- what we have learned over years.
What would I like to see happen with regard to older people now that I am one myself?
1. To have the elderly fully integrated into church life, not just having a once-a-month social with themselves.
2. To have the non-material needs of the older person spoken to again and again and attended to. Children, church and society seem to think they have done their duty when they have seen a frail elderly father or mother safely ensconced in a nursing home or a retirement center. Now they can relax. Mom is being taken care of – a load off their shoulders. She is warm, safe, fed, and her medications regulated. But her spiritual needs are not met with a once or twice years pastoral visit.
3. To have freer discussion of death and dying long before the last illness. We need to be encouraged not to “go gently into the dark night.”
4. To help us resist the real relentless enemy--the fear or aging and looking old. Our society has a particularly high emphasis on looking young and glamorous. Young girls aspire nothing more than to forever wear a 38 triple D bra and young men to show off biceps the size of watermelons.
5. To help us to deal with loss of health, mobility, finances, family members, and opportunity—and sometimes faith.
6. To helps us nurture personal faith despite sometimes almost daily losses.
It boils down to the words I once read of someone saying, “I see you, old woman, I see the YOU, not the old. In your eyes I read the story of the years, of the pain, of the sweet delights. I see you.”
When people see only gray hair, slow step, and weakened voice they make the real person invisible. They don’t see the real “you.”