Last Word: Airbrushing

Airbrush (n.) – 1876 invention that spreads paint using air pressure which is often employed in the delicate improvement of photographs.

The noun sounds far from sinister, but its verb form is more disturbing. For in recent decades airbrushing has not merely been employed in the world of cinematography to drive unrealistic portrayals of beauty, but it has cropped up increasingly in the political arena. Dictators of the recent past airbrushing out sections of society who did not conform to Communist ideals, had been highlighted by George Orwell. But the idea that democratic Western governments could do the same (post 1984) has often been derided.

Yet, in recent weeks, we may have witnessed something similar. In late March, government officials spoke of increasing coronavirus-related deaths. At daily briefings, young doctors and nurses who had died were fittingly honoured. When our Prime Minister rose from his hospital bed we rightly cheered. Yet outside the hospital wings there was an equally grim tale untold. Thousands were dying in care homes.

Journalists eventually picked up the scent in April. But when BBC Radio 4 asked Therese Coffey, Work and Pensions Secretary, if hospital deaths were ‘just the tip of the iceberg’, she reiterated that Covid-19 death rates would be based upon hospital records alone. Her reasoning? This data is ‘quick and accurate’. There is certainly some logic to this when one considers the challenge of testing. But how hard would it have been to collect some data? Why was there seemingly such a failure to highlight care homes? Did such impoverished recording occur because ministers didn’t want to cause greater panic? Was it because they didn’t want to report higher death tolls than their European counterparts? Or was it simply because anyone over 80 can be airbrushed from the picture?

At the time, Caroline Abrahams, Director of Age Concern, responded: ‘the current figures are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter.’ Her point was hard to argue against. On 24 April the Department of Health had recorded 22,173 deaths, yet the true figure was 29,648. Well-respected consultancy group, Candesic, suggested that more than 6,000 died in care homes in April. And, as I write, reports say that almost one third of all coronavirus deaths are happening there. The elderly have been miserably underrepresented in official statistics.

What makes such airbrushing acceptable? Sadly, modern researchers answer, because so few care if the elderly are blotted out. Dr Hannah Swift (University of Kent) published an intriguing paper just before lockdown on the very topic. There she highlighted that ageism is now rife in Britain as many see the baby-boomer generation as merely a societal burden. Accordingly, as some push for the lifting of lockdown, we hear of a younger generation speaking of coronavirus as ‘just an old person’s disease.’

Painting a better picture

So, what might God’s people do amid such times? Firstly, we should remember that local churches have opportunity to equip believers for such debates within the public square. Many Christians have the chance to redress such prejudice in their places of work. All of us are able to write to our local MPs about issues of age-related discrimination. We could, and perhaps should, pray for an emancipating modern Wilberforce to champions the cause of the octogenarians.

More realistically (and perhaps more biblically) local churches, in this season, must demonstrate that they are the alternative kingdoms of justice and love. As outposts of heaven, local churches are to demonstrate that the elderly church member is at the forefront of their minds. We are to do good to all, but the unbelieving senior should become almost jealous of the practical care and love that they see lavished upon their believing neighbours by their local churches (Gal. 6:10).

Moreover, in this season where there is every temptation for churches to airbrush out the elderly in church communication (because ‘Arthur is not on the church WhatsApp group’, or ‘Betty doesn’t know how to operate Zoom’), those in ministry must work particularly hard to include them. Assistant minsters are to pick up the phone to talk on the landline, ministry trainees are to coordinate the shopping, and if necessary the pastor is to print Sunday’s sermon and post it through the letterbox (this is my and my son’s current one-hour exercise slot for Sunday mornings).

While the UK continues to airbrush people out of society, we must not let that happen in our churches. The elderly are still those made in God’s image. They still comprise the body of Christ. And, honestly, they are not blemishes but some of the most beautiful parts of that body.

When I called one of our very elderly members, Dorothy, last week and asked how she was getting on she said: ‘I’m doing great. Bill and I pray for you every morning after breakfast. We just make our way down the list of church members and we pray for all of you.’

Dorothy might not have raised £30 million for the NHS this past month, but she is as much the Captain Tom Moore of our church. She needs to be appreciated and not airbrushed.

Stand up in the presence of the elderly and show respect for the aged. Fear your God. I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:32)

Jonathan Worsley, Editor

Jonathan Worsley is also pastor of Kew Baptist Church, London

Photograph: iStock.