A.J. Heschel wrote 50 years ago about how to assess culture and society, and he is more right now than he was even then.
“A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old,” he said. “It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.”
Today, there are new and unprecedented challenges to living on into older age, and they have to do with the reduced value of human being in market terms, and especially as each human being grows older.
- The digital age and multiplying forms of social communication, which leave many behind in the “technology is the way to go” stakes
- The global recession and the remorseless demands of the manufactured idol called “austerity”
- Market criteria in social care and the bar coding of every act of community service paid for by taxpayers
- The fixation of governments on the bottom line without addressing the humanely critical questions of how that bottom line is reached
- Globalization and the emergence of mega-structures of business, economics and finance, which means decisions made thousands of miles away by unaccountable corporations have immediate local impact on the well-being and welfare of people helpless to influence those decisions
- Cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism coinciding with a time of unprecedented polarization in precisely these contested but rich areas of human experience
Given these factors, it is a hard world in which to be old.
Affection and care for the old is a principle that Heschel derived not from a mere humanism, but from a humanism rooted in the Torah.
He also drew upon the deep quarries of prophetic visions of social justice, and concepts like mercy, righteousness and law as a constraint rather than an excuse for exercise of power over the vulnerable.
As a Christian, I identify with such theologically fueled ethics. As an example of much of the above, let me describe a recent scenario.
I am currently minister of a church in a town where the local authority is in the middle of a consultation with residents in sheltered accommodation (rented housing for older, disabled or vulnerable people).
Care homes in this area have, until now, had a full-time warden (housing manager), a laundry and a social room or residents’ lounge.
The necessity, cost-effectiveness and long-term viability of each of these services are being questioned by the government council.
And as happens with most consultations, there is a widespread perception that this is a soft approach to what will become hard realities.
The lounge is a place where residents sit, meet and share experiences, where friendships are fostered, relationships negotiated and developed, where social entertainment and conversation are encouraged.
At a time when loneliness and isolation are described as epidemic among the older population, the removal of this facility would lack moral imagination.
It would demonstrate the kind of social selfishness that lurks beneath the euphemism “hard choices” and “essential cuts.”
The presence of a warden ensures that concerns and worries about health or being able to cope as well as issues about mobility, safety and maintenance are borne by someone who understands, knows the people involved and has the network to ensure what is needed is available.
As for the laundry, none of the residents has washing machines, as they were told on entry that a laundry was provided. So in the event of laundries being closed, what are residents to do but buy and have installed a washing machine?
When decisions like these are taken, it is unhelpful to assume local politicians are heartless, thoughtless or haven’t agonized over the cost and consequence of such changes.
It’s clear with this local council that there is deep discomfort that such cuts, changes and adjustments are widely discussed before decisions are made.
But cuts will still happen. If not here, then elsewhere. Unless, of course, there is such pressure as forces a change of direction.
But if not here, where else are savings to be made? And therein lies one of the key social issues of our times. What is not up for discussion, it seems, is the need for savings to existing budgets.
Why? Because there are limited funds available from government sources.
Can these resources be strengthened by increases in revenue? Yes, by raising taxes, but that would itself be an unpopular decision, and one that is unlikely to be made.
But as a member of that electorate, I would gladly pay additional taxes to enable the continuance of our care for our older people.
A laundry, a lounge and a warden are not luxury options but represent socially responsible and responsive care.
Somewhere in all of this, Christian communities will have to think through what it means for a wealthy country (and we are one of the wealthiest in the world) to save money by making life harder for older people.
And, yes, the same case needs to be made for those who are poor, socially vulnerable and in need of social support.
But Heschel’s words are piercingly precise in their diagnosis of a society’s illness by looking at how we treat our elderly people.
We need to pay attention to his description of where the true gold mines of a culture are to be found; they are not to be found in budget cuts to essential services to essential people on whose life and work our society has been built.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.