Why You Need Old People (and why they need you)

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I flew to Huntsville on Friday, because the doctors thought my grandfather was dying. I flew to be there and not so far away. I’m always hating how far away I am.

My girls and I ran into a seven hour lay over in Charlotte, and I didn’t see my Papa until Saturday morning. By then, the doctors thought maybe they’d been wrong. Maybe he’d pull through.

I sat beside him and held his hand; we watched SEC football for hours. Half way through the Georgia/Tennessee game he said, “Jennifer. Jennifer!”

I turned; “Yes, Papa?”

He said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

He said, “Just thought I’d throw that out there.”

I spoke yesterday to a room of mostly older women—lots of gray hair—at the College Church of Christ in Searcy, Arkansas. I was there to talk about making bad choices and making good choices and coming back to God when we make too many bad ones and find ourselves estranged.

I spoke alongside a new friend, Hannah, and the two of us encouraged the audience to ask questions or comment as we went.

About half way through the presentation, I felt like I needed to address the gap in our ages (Hannah and I both being so much younger than our audience). And so I spoke directly to the older women in the room, and asked them to do their best to make coming back easy for the young people who wander away. I said, “Love them.” A few minutes later, I encouraged them to speak truth, too, to call us back when we don’t realize we’re wandering.

At that moment, an older woman stood and told Hannah and I a story about a way she’d intervened in the lives of a young couple at her church. And it was beautiful and exactly what we needed to hear.

It felt to me, at that moment, like we were all really connecting. I told those women, “We need you.” And they came up to me after the lesson and said, “We need you, too.”

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More and more in church world, young people and older people find themselves segregated. We attend different Bible classes, we’re in different small groups, we go to different services (contemporary and traditional, early and late), we often attend different churches altogether based on preference, taste, and the bounty of options available.

I grew up in St. Petersburg, FL, a retirement city. When I was a kid it seemed like everyone—everyone—was old. St Pete. was also fairly “secular” or “unchurched.” Most of the kids I went to school with didn’t go to church anywhere.

In St. Pete. you picked where you went to church not based on the preacher or the building or the children’s ministry; you picked the one you could drive to in less than thirty minutes.

My church was 100 people strong, forty of whom were my family members, and included exactly one kid my age. Later, our “youth group” would be me, my brother, and my friend Stephanie. Most everyone else was old. 

I grew up with old people, surrounded by old people, and they were my friends. When my grandmother died when I was eight, they stepped in to help. Helen Bell, Joetta Lane, Mary Perry—I loved them and listened to them. I dropped by their apartments in retirement villages just to talk.

I taught with them, planned ladies’ days with them, and ate their potluck food. I sat beside them in worship and in Bible class. I can hear to this day the sound of their voices singing “He Leadeth me.”

These experiences, these women, were an indescribable gift.

I had a woman tell me yesterday, “You’re wiser than you ought to be.” I laughed, and said, “It’s because I’ve listened to people like you.”

I want that for my girls. I want it for all of us.

Most of my readers are young; so it’s probable you’re young. Can I remind you of something? You need old people.

I know you think they’re stubborn and don’t know what they’re talking about. But, let’s be real, you’re stubborn, too, and you for sure don’t know what you’re talking about.

Give them a chance.

Older people have wisdom and perspective that you simply cannot get on your own. Too, they’re good at loving, really good. They’ve had many years to perfect their skills.

If older people make you nervous, I get it (I’ve seen so many teenagers and young adults clam up, sweaty and uncomfortable, in the presence of elders). Older people move and speak slowly. They think before they act. They are your opposite in so many ways. And it takes courage and patience to enter into a relationship with someone who’s different.

Do it anyway. Because relationships with people who’re different are the relationships most likely to challenge and refine us.

Walk up to an older person you admire, and build a friendship. Talk to them, not as your equal but as your superior. Talk loudly but not like you do to a person who can’t speak English, yelling and oversimplifying. Use the full extent of your vocabulary. Older people are hard of hearing, not understanding. Put your phone away. Be still. Don’t try to fill every silence. Ask questions. Tell stories.

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I spent the night Saturday night reading the Bible with my Papa. Every time I’d finish a passage, he’d say, “That was a beautiful letter you wrote, Jennifer.” He knew we were reading scripture because he’d quote it as we read, but when we’d pause he’d get mixed up and think we were reading my blog posts.

After about an hour, I closed the Bible. Papa said, “Jennifer, your beautiful letters have left me so full…” And I cried. Because I’d had the chance to bless him, to read the verses he loved so much and couldn’t read for himself. And because he ‘d actually been blessed by my writing—he’d told my uncle, “You should read those tidbits Jennifer writes. They taste so good.”

I never expected to have the privilege of feeding my grandfather the way he’d fed me.

When I leaned in to kiss my papa, I realized he hadn’t actually meant that his heart was full; he meant his nose was. All the crying he’d been doing as we read had left his nose full. Of snot.

So I grabbed a tissue and held it to his nose, plugging one nostril and then the next while he blew.

Old people need us, too.