Messages of Hope

The Gift of Years

Published / by Sandy

Like many viewers, I have enjoyed watching episodes from this season’s ‘Old People’s Home for 4 year olds‘.

What is so heartening is the relationship that grows between the children and the older people, and watching the older people grow in confidence and their willingness to be on the adventure the children embrace so readily.

In the film ‘Nomadland‘ the main character (Fern) in her 60’s is introduced to the concept of ‘ripening’. Joan Chittister writes, ‘All of life, at any age, is about ripening. Life is about doing every age well, learning what we are meant to learn from it, and giving to it what we are meant to give back to it’.

When we think about life as simply a linear trajectory, it is easy to focus on decline and loss – loss of mobility, loss of opportunities, loss of good health, loss of loved ones…. but when we immerse ourselves into each stage of life, as Sr Joan suggests, then we can look at how we do each stage well. “All human beings are continuously coming out of one part of life and going into another; clinging to what is familiar, but unable to stop ourselves from slipping into the next stage.”

It’s worth exploring Sr Joan’s book, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully.

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat review of her book is enlightening:

The great adventure of growing older and being an elder is the chance to deepen and enrich our spirituality. Whereas we can find examples of this in the medicine men and women of indigenous cultures and in the seers of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious traditions, wise old souls are rarely depicted in Western movies and television programs. Usually old people are portrayed as frail, bumbling, or silly. People grow up assuming that they will literally be over the hill with nothing to look forward to once they pass the retirement age. Joan Chittister explores the sad consequences of stereotypes about ageing. She posits a different and very inspiring portrait of the gifts, not the lack, of years.

At a lecture in New York City in late April, Chittister told the funny (and not-so-funny) story of asking a store clerk for a battery charger for her iPhone. The twentysomething man just stared at her, so she repeated what she needed. Finally, he said, “Lady, you have an iPhone?” The message was pretty clear. He thought she was too old to have the latest technology, associated with people who are up and about in the world and need to stay connected with lots of people. We at the lecture had a good laugh over this, but at the same time, we agreed when Chittister added that it was a laugh that was accompanied by a “stab in the psyche.” When we see elders as static people, rather than constantly developing ones, we do them and ourselves a great disservice.

Old brains are no less intellectually competent than young brains. “Scientists have discovered that older people, while not as quick computationally as younger people, do think just as well as the young, but differently – with more depth, with more reflection, with more philosophical awareness.”

Living life to the fullest means active ageing, and one thing that can make the difference between health and unhealthy aging is lifelong learning. According to the Harvard University Longitudinal Study of Adult Development, continued learning determines “the degree to which life will be satisfying to us, as well as the degree to which we will be interesting, valuable, life-giving to others.” Learning projects that keep elders’ minds active also expand their horizons and give them opportunities to be in community with others on retreats, study groups, or in online e-courses.

In a series of short, bright, and snappy chapters, Chittister provides a tour of other elements of growing older gracefully. She is convinced that only the old can make this journey into an adventure, a sweet spot in time that abounds with pleasure:

“Old age is not when we stop growing. It is exactly the time to grow in new ways. It is the period in which we set out to make sense of all the growing we have already done. It is the softening season when everything in us is meant to achieve its sweetest, richest, most unique self.”

One gift of years is the additional time to be of service and to fulfill a life purpose. This may mean playing a greater role as a co-creator of the world through projects for the general welfare. It may mean exploring ethical choices more deeply and bringing our experiences to bear on the challenges facing our communities. “A blessing of these years,” she writes, “is to have the time to complete in ourselves what has been neglected all these years, so that the legacy we leave to others is equal to the full potential within us.” This is a deeply spiritual quest, and Chittister makes a fine guide.

Of course the church is concerned about ‘ageing congregations’ and longevity of ‘church as we know it’, but ministry with older people – not reckoned by a business model but a pastoral model – is strategic and life-giving when seen as connecting meaningfully with a deeply spiritual quest for those in the ‘third third’ of their lives.