Cognitive Decline and Common Faults

Cognitive Decline and Common Faults

When visiting a far-off church, I met a man who, with sadness, told me about his father’s final sermon. A lifelong pastor and preacher, his father had withdrawn from full-time ministry several years prior, but still preached from time to time. On this Sunday he took to the pulpit, read his text, and gave his introduction. And then he gave his introduction again and seemed ready to give it a third time before the elders graciously intervened. With love, they led him back to the pews and later explained that his days as a preacher would have to come to a close. It was a sad end to a faithful ministry.

The whole world recently witnessed an example of a man who showed evidence of being well into the decline from which no man recovers. It became clear that he is not the man he once was or even the man he thinks he still is. As I watched that sad spectacle, I was reminded of several people I have known who, like that old pastor, headed into a time of decline in which their abilities and capacities began to diminish. I suspect you have seen this as well. Such decline is to be pitied, expected, and accepted, for it is a tragic result of the “dust to dust” nature of fallen humanity.

The day after watching that footage, I did what I usually do when I have a question to consider: I turned to my favorite old authors. I turned to their words of wisdom that I have so carefully collected and archived. I wanted to know what they have to say about aging—its blessings, challenges, and difficult realities. I dug through the many thousands of quotes I have saved and assembled their collective wisdom.

Beauty and Responsibility

One author offers encouragement by insisting that even while old age presents many difficulties, it can also be a time of special beauty and usefulness. “By and by, we all come to a door which opens into old age. Many are disposed to feel that this door can lead to nothing beautiful. We cannot go on with our former tireless energy, our crowded days, our great achievements.” However, being unable to maintain the old energy and abilities does not absolve the elderly of all responsibility. “There is altogether too much letting go,” he warns. “Too much dropping of tasks, too much falling out of the pilgrim march when old age comes on. We may not be able to run swiftly as before. We tire more easily. We forget some things. But old age may be made very beautiful and full of fruit.”

Another author warns of withdrawing from life too soon and becoming idle and inactive. Yet he also highlights the necessity of changing from one set of duties to another. “Like Moses, you may have your chief work to do after eighty. It may not be in the high places of the field; it may not be where a strong arm and an athletic foot and a clear vision are required, but there is something for you yet to do. Perhaps it may be to round off the work you have already done; to demonstrate the patience you have been recommending all your lifetime; perhaps to stand a lighthouse at the mouth of the bay to light others into harbor; perhaps to show how glorious a sunset may come after a stormy day. If aged men do not feel strong enough for anything else, let them sit around in our churches and pray, and perhaps in that way they may accomplish more good than they ever did in the meridian of their life.”

The elderly still have work to do and duties to fulfill, many of them related to character and service to others. “A man should not slacken his diligence, earnestness, faithfulness, prayerfulness, or his faith in Christ, until he has come to the very gate of eternity.” Yet they must be wise, because “when we cannot longer work, work is not our duty; God does not require it of us. It is some other one’s duty then, not ours.” In other words, there comes a time when a person must pass his duties to another. This may be difficult and humbling, but it is necessary.

A Common Fault of Old Age

One of the common faults of elderly people is that they can be “unwilling to confess that they are growing old, and to yield their places of responsibility and care to younger [people]. Too often they make the mistake of overstaying their own greatest usefulness in positions which they have filled with fidelity and success in the past—but which, with their own waning powers, they can no longer fill acceptably and well as heretofore.” In this way aging represents a severe test, and perhaps especially to people of great accomplishment and people who have lived in the public eye. “It is the part of true wisdom in a man, as he advances in years, to recognize the fact that he can no longer continue to carry all the burdens that he bore in the days of his strength, nor do all the work that he did when he was in his life’s prime.”

When we cannot longer work, work is not our duty; God does not require it of us. It is some other one’s duty then, not ours.

J.R. Miller

Aging comes with many difficulties and among the most difficult of all is admitting that abilities have declined and positions must be ceded to others. “It is not easy to keep sweet and gentle-spirited when a man must stand aside and see others take up and do the things he used to do himself.” Yet by grace, he can—he can admit that aging is an inevitable part of life and that with aging comes decline in both body and mind. He can admit that the best way to serve others may be to step aside or step down.

Because the aging man is prone to overestimate his abilities and underestimate his decline, it is wise to enable loved ones to speak to him candidly so they can help him see what he may otherwise deny. It may be wise even to plan in advance to withdraw from public duties at a certain age or stage. It reflects godly character to plead with God that he will not remain at his old duty station when God has assigned that duty to another. It is wise and loving for loved ones to do their utmost to protect his dignity by letting him know when it is time to step aside. Mike Leake recently shared how the great John Newton—a man of tremendous faith, wisdom, and character—was unwilling to step down from his pulpit ministry and eventually had to be lovingly forced out by a group of men from his church. And this despite Newton earlier being struck by words from Cotton Mather who once wrote, “My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to give up.”

Perhaps we would all do well to learn from Thomas Chalmers who, as he pondered the future, longed to consecrate his final years to turning his focus from earthly labors to heavenly preparation. “It is a favorite speculation of mine,” he said, “that if spared to sixty we then enter on the seventh decade of human life, and that this, if possible, should be turned into the Sabbath of our earthly pilgrimage and spent sabbatically, as if on the shores of an eternal world, or in the outer courts, as it were, of the temple that is above, the tabernacle in heaven.”

God’s Grace in the Signs of Aging

For those who live long enough, cognitive decline is as inevitable as physical decline. It is every bit as tragic and every bit as pitiable. Yet by God’s grace, we need not fear spiritual decline, for God has promised to hold fast those who are his. And perhaps these people can see God’s grace even in the signs of aging. “If the voice quiver, it is because God is changing it into a tone fit for the celestial choral. If the back stoop, it is only because the body is just about to lie down in peaceful sleep. If the hand tremble, it is because God is unloosing it from worldly disappointments to clasp it on ringing harp and waving palm. If the hair has turned, it is only the gray light of heaven’s dawn streaming through the scant locks. If the brow, once adorned by a luxuriance of auburn or raven, is smitten with baldness, it is only because God is preparing a place to set the everlasting crown. The falling of this aged Christian’s staff will be the signal for the heavenly gate to swing open. The scattering of the almond blossoms will only [make more obvious] the [presence] of the fruit.”

(Drawn from De Witt Talmage; F.B. Meyer; J.R. Miller; John Newton; Thomas Chalmers.)

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