guest blog: a call to care for older people

Our friend, Mary Milne, is a committed campaigner, whose passion and voice for justice come from a sincere faith that we are called to make a difference, and a deep compassion for others. In their years as colleagues at Christian Aid, the Sanctuary’s co-founder, Liz Baddaley, learnt a lot from Mary, and even now would say that the voice in her head telling her how important it is to campaign sounds distinctly like Mary’s!

Mary now works for Age UK, and in this guest blog shares some of her perspective on God’s heart for older people, and her hope that individual Christians, and church congregations, will get behind the campaign to improve the care system.

Mary Milne

I’d describe myself as someone who is trying to follow Jesus, sometimes more, and often less, successfully! And for me ‘justice’ issues aren’t really a separable part of my faith.

I grew up in a church community and both my mother and my grandmother modelled practical care which was rooted in faith but not explicit about it.

I have a childhood memory of being in my granny’s little Morris Minor giving ‘old ladies’ lifts to church. I can distinctly remember watching the road underneath the car where the floor had rusted through. One of the ladies we picked up was quite generously built and we always worried the floor would give way!

Looking back, I can see how important it must have been for that woman, who lived on her own, to be able to get to church. And for my then 70-year-old grandmother, the opportunity to contribute and support others must also have been valuable.

But it wasn’t until I got older that I started to make more ‘political’ connections and understand that some of the issues facing people living in poverty in both this country and around the world weren’t just the result of bad luck, but of policies which could be challenged. That was when I got into campaigning, initially on environmental and international issues, but more recently on older people’s issues here in the UK.

I think we are a very ageist society – older people are often dismissed as having nothing to say, or only being interested in knitting and flower arranging…

But when I worked on development issues, one of the things I loved was meeting people in their 70s, 80s and 90s who were passionate about making a difference to people living in poverty.

We are all living longer these days – it’s estimated that around a quarter of children born now can expect to live to 100 – which is something to celebrate. But public policies are going to have to take into account that massive demographic change. Some people want to portray this as a threat, but I think as Christians we need to speak up for the fact that we all – older and younger – depend on each other.

We owe a debt of gratitude to those who lived before us and built our society – and we hold it in trust for those who come after us. I think it’s significant that churches and other faith communities are often the only places where older and younger people come together without barriers.

Throughout the Bible long life is seen as a blessing, and as a source of wisdom. I love this verse from the book of Job (12:12) “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (NIV) – if only that was as self-evident to us today as it was to Job!

My favourite older person in the gospels is Anna – who lost her husband at a young age and lived the rest of her life in the temple where she “worshipped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2: 37).

I picture Anna as a strong and wise person who has taken the independence offered by her widowhood to do something special with her life.

Her closeness to God enabled her to recognise the Christ in the baby brought to the temple by his parents, and she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel”.

But the Bible is also clear that we need to care for ‘widows, orphans and foreigners’ – those were the groups who were most at risk in Jewish society.

Since I’ve been working at Age UK, I have realised just how vulnerable and neglected some older people can be.

Think about a woman living on her own, unable to get out, her only human contact from a series of different carers who rush in twice a day for fifteen minutes, getting her up and washing her with plastic gloves on – what must she think this means?

Or a man with dementia, confused and angry, feeling everything that he has been and done in his life slipping away from him.

Or his wife, struggling to care for him while her own health suffers, trying hard to remember what he used to be and fighting her own guilt at the resentment she sometimes feels towards him.

I think there is a call to Christians here – both for a personal response in our own attitudes, but also for a political (with a small p) response.

One really important issue is the care system. ‘Care’ is defined as the provision of help with everyday things like dressing, meals, washing etc, either in people’s own homes or in a residential care home. It’s something that has become particularly significant to me in the last couple of years as my husband’s parents have started to need care.

They are the lucky ones – around 800,000 older people don’t get the care they need. For others it’s the poor quality of the care that’s the problem. And for one in ten people, who have a long term medical condition, the cost of care can be catastrophic – over £100,000.

These problems have been growing for many years, and successive governments have ducked the issue as too difficult to deal with.

One of the reasons for this is that there just hasn’t been a mass of people calling for change. Most of us don’t even realise that adult social care is different from health care – until we, or someone close to us, needs it.

So that’s why Age UK is working with others in the Care and Support Alliance to collect 100,000 signatures on a petition to show the government that this is an issue that people really are concerned about.

And I think that the churches could play a really key role in championing this issue – just as they did with debt cancellation through Jubilee 2000 and the Fairtrade movement. So…

• if you can do one thing, please sign the Care in Crisis petition

• If you are part of a church community which would like to do more, you can order paper copies of the petition and a campaign report with more information – just email

• If you are available on 6 March, please consider coming to a ‘mass lobby’ of parliament

• And if you just need some practical advice about the care system, I’d recommend the very helpful people on the end of the Age UK Advice line: 0800 169 6565.

Sometimes as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve struggled with the fact that I seem to be thinking of older people as somehow ‘other’ – almost as a distinct group. But of course we’re all on a journey from birth to death – some are nearer the start and others of us are nearer the end.

We don’t know how long that journey will be and where it will take us. All of us – older and younger – are made in God’s image and I think we need to invite God to challenge our attitudes to ageing.

I encourage you to pray for God’s guidance to listen to, respect, care for and speak out for our elders, in our own communities and elsewhere.

Please do both pray and campaign in response to Mary’s thought-provoking blog. The Sanctuary has published some prayers specifically inspired by this blog, and Age UK’s campaign, which we’d love you to use if that would help you and your church engage with these issues. (We also have some more generally focused intercessions for elderly people available here.

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