Old Age and Illness

[January 24, 2017]

I was just writing to a friend who’s had a hard diagnosis:

When I was young I noticed how all older people have something physical to complain about, sometimes something very serious. Each one had a body part that was failing faster than the rest. A part that had been set, like a clock, to be the first to give way. And we don’t know what they are, when we’re younger. We carry them around unknowing, while the clock steadily circles around to the time they are set to bloom forth—“booby traps” that we don’t know about and can’t anticipate, but every day get closer to being activated.

George Gilder had a memorable line in “Men and Marriage,” about how a young man who has pursued only pleasure begins to realize that he is aging: “His body, which once measured out his few advantages over females, is beginning to intimate its terrible plan to become as weak as an older woman’s.”

It is so easy, when we’re young, to think, “Of course he / she is sick, feeble, deaf, dying—he / she is old.” As if that made it reasonable. It is never reasonable, when it’s us.

It seems God deliberately saves up a lot of suffering for the end of life—loss of health, loss of strength, loss of loved ones, loss of mind. For some people, these wounds are no doubt God’s final attempt to get their attention.

All we can do is pray. And commiserate; however weak we become, we can still give each other the gift of listening. Old age and illness teach us new lessons we would not otherwise learn. Flannery O’Connor wrote:
“In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

These lessons are surely planned by God to teach exactly what we need to learn. They arrive when we don’t have much time to use the wisdom we might gain. Surely we can at least be watchful, to quickly recognize the lessons that are being sent to us, and put them into practice. Instead falling into panic or despair, we can recognize the the beginning of a process of stripping-away that will sooner or later strip away everything, including breath. And replace it with life.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.


  1. Dear Frederica, I'm nearing my 67th birthday next month, and I find your description on old age very honest and informative. A big thank you, for your intelligent compiling of facts and for your religious meaning of our getting old.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! My dear daughter-in-law forwarded this to me today. I have read it repeatedly as it is so timely for my husband and myself. Can you help me understand how "loss of mind" before death can help one focus on God? We are caring for my mother-in-law who has dementia and has been resently identified as having Sundowners Syndrome. She has gone from being such a sweet lady to being paranoid, angry, and at night, being violent at times. She has experienced terrible nightmares that she not only dwells on, but insists really happened. Thank you for your insight!
    In Christ,

    FMG: I am so sorry to hear what you're dealing with, with your mother-in-law! I certainly sound naive, to say that it can be a form of blessing. I guess it matters so much what form dementia takes. I was picturing my mother, who became less tense and hostile as dementia set in. And thinking of people who just become simpler, in general. May God give you strength as you and your husband continue to try to provide Christ's love for your mother-in-law. My one practical suggestion would be to stand beside her bed and pray over her while she is sleeping. When we're asleep the Lord can sometimes reach deep into the mind and untie the knots. God bless you!

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