“Each stage and phase of life is ordained by God and therefore has a purpose. . .We grow in never-ending spirals of change, as the progression of our lives ebbs and flows, with the Spirit nudging and guiding us always. There is no one phase of life that is more important than another: each has its place; each is equally essential…ongoing faith formation throughout life supports a spirituality that is constantly growing, ever changing.” (R. Johnson, “Shaping a New Vision of Faith Formation for Maturing Adults: Sixteen Fundamental Tasks,” in Lifelong Faith, Spring 2007.)
So . . . if no one phase of life is more important than another, why do we resist so strongly the idea of growing old?
The messages from our culture is overwhelming: aging is to be avoided at all costs. Physically we can alter the effects of aging on our bodies through surgery, Botox, creams and lotions. We can push retirement back and keep working well into our 70s and pushing our 80s.We can eat healthy diets, exercise regularly, and keep the pace of our lives unaltered.
None of these are bad things to do—we can argue that they are important for people’s futures. But are we missing anything in life by continually avoiding the next phase that “has its place and is equally essential”?
Several weeks ago I was part of a workshop in Richmond, Virginia, aimed at ministry for the Boomer generation. It emphasized the positive sides of aging: longer and healthier life spans, rosier financial outlooks with Medicare and Social Security than older people faced 50 years ago, a broad spectrum of opportunities for travel and education, among others.
I could feel the group shifting their perspective. Aging might not be so bad.
But then a pastor among the ecumenical group raised a tentative hand and asked the question we had avoided. How do you minister to those who are house-bound, or in assisted living, who are often depressed, and don’t have the means, physically or financially, for a fast-moving retirement?
Close on the heels of that question was a query about caregivers dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s—the subject that is often the elephant in the room whenever older adults gather to talk about their lives.
So who are we talking about when we say “older adults”? Are they vibrant, active, busy, and self-sufficient? Or are they defined by loss, dependent, in poor health, depressed, and needy? Or somewhere in between?
When we look at the broader picture, we begin to see the tension within and among older adults and how that affects our ministry with and to them.
When I work with adolescents, the truth I emphasize over and over is that they are never alone. God is always with them, even when they cannot feel God’s presence. Perhaps this message needs to be the clarion call for us as well as we grow older.
We are never alone. God is always with us, even when we cannot feel or even talk about God’s presence. Paul says in Romans 8: 38-39:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
How do we begin to deepen our own relationships to God and help others do the same through our ministries?
I will confess that researching this topic has given me a new perspective about growing older. It looks very inviting. Maybe it is why studies show that older people are more likely to express contentment than people in their 20s and 30s.
Elaine Brody, a gerontologist who studied aging for many years, had this to say:
“My present perspective, then, is that of an 86-year-old woman who, I suppose, was prepared for old age intellectually but not emotionally. Even my children are growing into the stages of life I studied. Common experiences of old age, such as illness and losses, were unexpected, even though expectable.” (The Gerontologist (2010) 50 (1):1.)
What I have learned – what I am learning – is that I can bone up intellectually about growing older, but that doesn’t help me deal with the “unexpected, even though expectable.”
What is comforting comes from deep memories that bring back satisfying feelings by transcending the present to enter a place of quiet joy. Entering a place of escape can bring respite and comfort, even when we are not able to live into the present because of grief, illness, dementia or other infirmity.
Armed with good memories and the reminder that God is with us through every situation or time of life allows us to embrace our aging, knowing “there is no one phase of life that is more important than another” and finding “a spirituality that is constantly growing, ever changing.”
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum)
Dorothy is an instructor at Virginia Theological Seminary and program coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching.