There, by and with the grace of God, shall go I…….

In a class on adult ministry that I am taking we are in the unit on senior adults. There is a self-awareness inventory that asks us to indicate on a scale of 1-5 the number that best expresses our feelings between two extremes about the statement, “When I think of older people, I think of people who are…..” and then lists seventeen attributes and their corresponding opposites, such as kind/uncaring, friendly/grumpy, rigid/tolerant, fast/slow, greedy/ generous, etc. The numbers correlate to “1= strong agreement with the word on the left” to “5= strong agreement with the word on the right”. The point is to put one in touch with her own view of the aged and aging, to reveal any stereotypes that might be at work in the assumptions she brings to her work with and among the elderly in church ministry.
Until a few years ago, I think I probably would have marked many of the attributes in the self-awareness survey in the neutral or negative side of the scale. However, several things have happened since my early 40’s that have given me a better perspective on aging.
I watched my maternal grandmother in her final years display such grace in aging, accepting declining health and coping with the loss of loved ones, that it has had a profound impact on me as I have contemplated my own aging.
During that same time my own mother went through a very difficult health challenge and a family relationship issue that she didn’t handle very well initially, but with which she later came to grips. I’ve been very impressed by the way my mother has been able to change and grow in her 60’s so that now, at 70, she is happy, content, and active. She and my father, age 78, retired about 12 years ago back to a community near where they were raised. They are involved in a number of social and service activities through their church and have a wide group of cousins and childhood friends that they have reconnected with after being away for more than 40 years. Daddy, too, suffered prostate cancer 6 years ago and a near fatal hemorrhagic stroke 4 ½ years ago but worked hard in rehabilitation and is healthy, active, and engaged in life.
Over the last decade, too, I’ve been in an Emmaus accountability group with a group of women, all of whom are my senior by about 15-20 years. They have shown courage, flexibility, perseverance, and wisdom through a variety of trials and life circumstances- all of which have made the prospect of aging less anxious for me. They have maintained a variety of interests, a joy in living, senses of humor, and desire and capacity to serve others that has inspired me.
When I go down the self-awareness inventory at this point in my life, for each extreme on the scale, I can generally think of one someone who could be considered representative of the negative extreme. (And many of them are not yet ‘OLD’ and have been that way most all their lives!) But for each one of those, I can generally think of three or more on the positive end of the scale for that attribute which more than outweigh the negative perception’s potential!
I think the takeaway point of that is that there are far more people managing aging in a positive and graceful way than there are those who are stuck in the pits of negativity. Thank goodness!
I’ve learned that stereotyping people on the basis of their age is both unfair and unwarranted. Age alone actually has very little to do with it.
Once upon a time I heard someone say that as we age, we simply become more noticeably and intractably what we already are. If we are optimistic and flexible, we will be equally or more so in old age. If we’re stubborn, inflexible, and pessimistic, we will again be even more so!
While I think that is generally true, based on what I’ve observed, I think we can’t rule out the potential impact of true transformation that can occur when one grows into a personal relationship with Christ, whatever the age at which that occurs. So I would never say that someone couldn’t change just because of their age.
I can recall as a 30-something young mother, seeing a retired schoolteacher who sat on the front row at our church. Her heart’s desire in retirement was to write and publish children’s books. I would watch her from the choir. She had an absolutely angelic look of peace, always seeming to be smiling. I would think to myself, “that’s the look I want to have as an old lady!” Unfortunately, whether by genetics or habit, I always seem to appear deadly serious, determined, and almost scowling. It scares people off, I think, who tend to view me as imposing and domineering. I am working on that perception, however, and still have hope that I can grow into the kind of mature matron who is approachable and serene.
To some degree, I think we can make a choice as to how we are perceived in old age, but the choice largely occurs many decades earlier and is then cultivated by habit of practice. But we are never set in concrete, as long as there is breath. There is always time and room for Christ’s gentle, kind, peaceable, patient, loving, and tender Spirit to move us more and more to the positive side of the scale! I am counting on Christ to do that in me. And I am trying to do my part, asking for the grace to cooperate with Him in it.