The Elderly: Caring for those who are no longer “useful”

The Elderly: Caring for those who are no longer “useful”

From her earliest years, Corrie ten Boom cared for the elderly, and when she grew old, she allowed others to care for her. It’s just what Christians did. It’s what they must continue to do in our youth-obsessed, utilitarian culture in which respect for the aged is
no longer a given.

The Hiding Place is full of people who are well past “their prime.” So is the Beje, where readers encounter many of them.
• Mama, Corrie’s wise and loving mother, serves neighbors young and old, even on days when she can hardly get out of bed herself.

• Tante Jans is a peripatetic pamphleteer and Christian activist, who slows down only when diabetes forces her.

• Casper ten Boom has no head for business but a commitment to craftsmanship as well as a patient and forgiving heart for just about everyone.

• Pickwick is, even by his own admission, an ugly old man with a love for children and a steely determination to rescue the oppressed.

• Christoffels, one of Father’s employees, does his work with care and precision and endures the abuse of a Nazi sympathizer with quiet dignity.

• Corrie and Betsie are unmarried, childless, and in their fifties but are fully employed in the family business and in ministry to many people in Haarlem.

The aged in Corrie’s world are not perfect, but more times than not they possess deep wisdom and empathy for others—much of it leavened by a rock-solid trust in God. They are more often than not actively working in what we might call their “retirement years.”

And then we come to people whose physical decline allows them to do little that we would consider “productive.” Corrie’s experiences with these aged ones would sometimes be reflected in her own experience later in life. In 1918, Mama had her major stroke while standing at the sink, with the tap water running over her feet. For the next two months, Cor Luitingh ten Boom lay in a coma on her bed.

When Cor finally awakened, she had lost much of her motor function and most of her speech. The only words Mama retained were “yes,” “no,” and “Corrie”—a name she used for everyone. Communication therefore was extremely difficult. So she and Corrie devised “a little game, something like Twenty Questions.”

Mama would start by speaking Corrie’s name, and her daughter would respond by asking questions that received a “yes” or a “no” answer. If it was someone’s birthday, for example, Corrie would find out. When the “game” was over, Corrie would write that person a note saying Mama was thinking of her. Then Corrie would get her mother to sign the note with a scrawling signature before sending it on.1 It was a painstaking process, full of love and lessons for Corrie.

They were lessons that Corrie would apply to her own life. In her later years, Corrie would tell her ministry partners, friends, and helpers that she hoped she would die with her “boots on.” Unlike Tante Jans, she wanted to be busy about her Lord’s business until the very end, not felled by poor health. Yet Jesus the Victor had another plan. A series of strokes began in 1978, and in her last five years Corrie was mostly confined to a bed. Her helper for this part of her pilgrimage, Pam Rosewell (later, Moore), called this period Corrie’s “five silent years.”

Pam says that she and Corrie worked out a similar system of communication, with Corrie using facial expressions and answering “Ja!” or “Nee!” to simple questions. Corrie, like her mother, could encourage others, learning that she was valuable to God no matter what she was able to accomplish—with or without her “boots on.” Corrie was learning the hard but necessary lesson that when the Lord asks his people to love him with all their strength, the measure of that strength is not important. What counts is the attitude of the heart.

It’s a lesson that most people, if they are fortunate enough to live that long, must face. Aging and its growing physical limitations are a natural part of human life in a fallen world. Corrie ten Boom experienced them, and chances are that we will too. How should we respond? Corrie’s life provides a clue. Pam writes, “She had served Him in her youth; now she was serving Him in her old age. She had served Him in strength, now she was serving Him in weakness. She had served Him in health; she was serving Him in illness. She had served Him in her life; she was serving Him in her death. We saw how God built her up in her spirit daily, did not forsake her, provided for her, and sustained her. A new awe and respect for the preciousness of human life came into our thinking.”2

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