“Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be.” So wrote poet Robert Browning to his beloved Elizabeth. It is a warm sentiment that can be a comfort to those of us facing old age. In contrast, though, to that beautiful sentiment stands my mother’s observation: “Growing old is not for the feint-hearted.”
Aging presents the obvious physical challenges of health problems. It presents the mental problems of fading mental abilities. It can present emotional challenges to include depression. But growing old also brings with it some powerful spiritual challenges.
The Bible clearly calls us to honor our elderly and to care for them. There is even the poignant missive to be patient with repeated questions and stories, a lesson taught to me by my 95-year-old Aunt Peg. I went to see her at the nursing home where she spent her last days. At one point she asked ‘Richard, how old are you?” I was 48 at the time. When I told her that, she threw her arms up and said with her lyrical Irish accent “Oh my goodness!” A few minutes later she asked the same question and had the same reaction. And then again one more time before the visit ended.
The greatest emotional/spiritual challenge of growing old is fear. Some fear the afterlife. Others fear the process of dying. Most fear becoming disabled to include the loss of mental capacity. Sadly, most elderly folks don’t have an outlet for voicing that fear.
The Christianity of my youth was heavy on sin and damnation. As such, the idea of death was accompanied by a great deal of fear. Some of us never get beyond that fear-based spiritual world. I’m fairly sure my father struggled with that. Before dementia set in, he told me his belief that his strokes were punishment for his sins.
Most, however, are more afraid of becoming disabled. It is not uncommon for me to meet with someone who has experienced a recent memory lapse that has them frightened that they are on the road to dementia. Some fear becoming a burden to children. Others fear abandonment in a nursing home. Many fear losing their past and their sense of identity. After all, we are all made up of our stories and to lose connection with those stories can feel like another terrifying form of death.
Growing old can also bring into sharp focus wounds that need to heal. I see many Viet Nam veterans who fear they are going crazy because events of 50 years ago are coming up in their memories. It is no coincidence that these wounds arise after retirement because veterans now have time on their hands and wounds that were set aside so that a veteran could work and raise a family now demand equal time.
Other wounds may involve regrets. We all have them. When we grow old and our health begins to fail, the tomorrows that we long counted on no longer are there. Whatever we put off until tomorrow now seems out of reach.
We may regret choices made or at least find ourselves reflecting on certain choice points with energy spent on wondering “What if?” We all know we can’t change the past but that thought doesn’t automatically eliminate regrets and what if questions but we often in old age are at least curious about the what ifs? Sadly, though, many elderly spend time berating themselves not so much with what ifs but with I-should have-nevers. “I should have never gotten married.” “I should have never dropped out of school”. “I should have never taken that job.” These and others are some of the regrets I hear others voice as they age.
Given the elusiveness of the idea of God’s will, I have also dealt with some who fear that they did not live out God’s will for them. The question of purpose is an important one that overlaps with one’s understanding of God’s will. If I am in my 70s and believe I never figured out what God’s will is for me, I can become afraid, especially if I believe God’s will to be narrowly defined.
I remember talking to one woman who found it comforting when I suggested to her that perhaps God’s will for us is painted in broad strokes rather than specifics. I told her that, in my own case, I believed that God put me here for a reason and that was to be of service to others. I shared that I didn’t believe that God was particularly invested in me practicing psychology in El Paso TX.
One’s sense of God’s will can also be challenged by retirement. The only piece of advice I have for people considering retirement is “Make sure you’re moving toward something and not just away from something.” Many folks retire and their sense of purpose comes to a jarring halt leading to anxiety and depression. God is not done with us just because we retire!
Growing old may also challenge people when they realize they are angry with God. Some, when faced with a life-threatening illness such as Parkinson’s, may feel an outcry such as “I’ve tried to live a good life. I’ve gone to Church, raised my children in the Church, tried to honor the Commandments. This isn’t fair!” The harsh reality is that living a “good” life does not guarantee a peaceful, illness-free leave-taking. That harsh reality makes some angry. That anger can be especially troublesome if the person judges himself/herself for being angry with God.
We may also be angry with God when we helplessly watch an elderly loved one suffer. There are many Christians out there who are angry at the God they believe has permitted COVID and allowed it to strike down an aging loved one.
As we grow old, we may also be confronted with doubts, especially regarding an afterlife. As one person asked me, “Suppose there’s nothing there?” Some have lived their lives enduring suffering to include the loss of loved ones by finding comfort in the thought of an afterlife where suffering ends and we are reunited with loved ones. As the end gets close, some struggle with a fear generated by a sudden doubt about the reality of after-life.
Others may fear that spiritual choices they made along the way will prove to be wrong. I have long believed that it is all right, even necessary, to feel anger toward God. One woman of deep spirituality who had tragically lost a son listened, nodded, then said “But suppose you’re wrong?” I paused and said “Well, if so, then I guess when I got to board the bus to Hell there be a lot of people waiting for me with clubs and tire irons!” But privately her challenge has stayed with me.
Finally, there is the spiritual challenge, especially during this time of COVID, of isolation. Some spiritual lives are enriched by community. As we age and become disabled, access to community can be limited. As one woman said, “I miss hugging my friends. I miss singing together.” Old age can cut us off from our spiritual communities.
Some cultures continue to honor their elderly and view them as a resource for wise counsel. Sadly, our American industrial achievement-oriented society seems to have moved away from that.
Have you ever had the benefit of sitting with an old person and listening to their stories? I remember my great Aunt Margaret talking about being in Paris when Lindbergh landed or seeing Babe Ruth play baseball. But I especially remember when she asked me about the Viet Nam War. “What do you think of this war, Richard?” I responded to her that I thought it was a bad war. “So do I” she said. Then she slowly shook her head and added “So many young men.” I realized then that my Aunt Margaret had lived through 5 wars counting Viet Nam and so had seen too much loss of life. It remains the finest anti-war sentiment I’ve ever heard.
Listening to an old person’s stories takes time and a little bit of patience because some stories do get repeated. I’ve had the privilege have sitting with elderly people and learning what it was like to be a black man in the Army in the Second World War. I’ve heard what it was like to grow up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood yet crossing paths with Jackie Robinson at Church on Sunday. I’ve heard stories of incredible courage in the face of combat. I’ve heard the stories of a friend who survived Auschwitz and went on to become a psychologist. The value of being old even came to me once when I walked into the therapy room to see a new client and she smiled and burst out with “Thank God you’re not young!” She went on to explain that she wanted to speak with someone who had lived life long enough to mistrust simple answers and formulaic solutions.
Mark Twain once said “Age is a question of mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” We may not be able to change the fact that we age but we always have a choice as to how we face it.
As I continue in my own old age journey, then, I will treasure the words from Job: “Those who are older should speak for wisdom comes with old age” and will rejoice and hold my head high with the Proverb: “Gray hair is a crown of glory.”
Reflection: What are your thoughts on growing old? Has that fact challenged you spiritually?