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02 May 2014

Who cares?

Who cares?

"Nurse, please, I need the toilet. Please nurse? Nurse! I ring and ring. They just don't come." The sound of this frail voice brings a wash of sadness as I watch footage on BBC's Panorama and then Wednesday's 10 o'clock news revealing fresh neglect and abuse in care homes.

A gran or granddad lying wet for hours with their buzzer unplugged, being slapped, roughly handled and cursed; it was enough to send shivers down any spine.

As a result of this week's allegations many staff were sacked or suspended. Meanwhile Care Quality Commission figures show over a third of care homes that have received warning notices since 2011 still do not meet basic standards.

These are the failings of a minority of staff who are bringing their amazing, dedicated and loving co-workers into disrepute by their actions. One family member said: "We can fly planes, invent technology, reach the moon but we can't look after our elderly." Are we failing to care for some of the most vulnerable in our communities?

As I grew up, my gran always said "Whatever you do, don't get old." "Well, ageing is inevitable for each of us, gran" I always thought. But now more of us are living longer and the population of older people is growing.

Close to one million of those who attend England's churches every Sunday are over the age of 65. Although our population is getting older, the last thing they seem to be doing is putting up their feet.

A popular attitude in society and the media idolises youth, and of course, being one of the 'missing generation' in Church I long to see us redress the balance. But as Church should we think differently and ensure we also wholly value and respect those in the body of Christ who are older? Those who have been carrying out a key role in ministry for years and do it well with much to give; do we want to simply resign them to the senior citizens group?

There is lots of faithful work being done by churches catering for older groups in their communities and many local churches have established good links with retirement or care homes. Many denominations also run residential or care homes and Christians are engaging with the national care policy agenda and making a real difference in areas such as dementia care.  

Let's take time to visit, chat and listen. Could we challenge the stereotypes further by having the younger generation offer to get involved in this ministry too?

The Apostle Paul's letters contain vital teaching on the Church's reverent attitude to older people, for example in the letter to Titus.

After an afternoon of visiting my elderly friends who are widows I was asked by a surprised peer "why?" – surely I had better things to do? But to me these ladies are my family. I value their spiritual wisdom, rich history, stories, legacy, friendship and most of all their prayer-warrior perseverance.

When despairing at a diminishing, elderly congregation or rolling our eyes at the latest complaint about sound or 'fandangled whizzy gadgets' we must rethink our attitude, and find ways to encourage our elders in their spiritual growth, appreciating what they bring to church life. Never underestimate the power of tea and cake and a chat.

With the physical workload and paperwork it is clear care workers often just don't have the time to sit and chat and show emotional care. So who will step into the gap if the Church doesn't? What about those who are experiencing dementia or in their homes and just plain lonely? If we're honest we could make a bit more of a contribution than half an hour singing Christmas carols once a year.

Growing old is part of life, and yes change in the care system is needed, but we can keep an eye out for the subtler ways we might readjust to respect, embrace and celebrate old age. 

And we can also remember that not all churchgoing elderly people are necessarily Christians; many may have just been going out of habit. Are we sharing a good news message with a largely unreached people group or indeed encouraging more elderly to discover Jesus and be part of the Church too?

Lucy Cooper is writer and multimedia co-ordinator at the Evangelical Alliance