My younger friends sometimes ask me what it’s like to be old. And if they don’t ask, I know they’re thinking it. What have you lost? What hurts? What do you treasure from your life experiences? Why do you focus on your aches and pains? Why? And when they ask, I know they’re trying to understand and be kind and maybe, maybe learn something I know about and they don’t. But at a deeper level, they’re wondering what’s in store for them in the future. What will life be like when their children are grown and gone? What happens when their career comes to an end? How does it feel to be sixty or seventy or eighty? Does it hurt?
The answer is, yes, sometimes it does. It hurts and yet it’s okay. I firmly believe that God made our lives with the knowledge that all of it is good. Every age and stage has its challenges and its blessings. When we’re babies we need those older to care for us, nurture us. Then as we grow a bit older we need guidance and encouragement. Once we’re adults we live like crazy, burning the candle at both ends with work and home and family. It’s an exhausting time, but also vibrant and fun and interesting. Then we age and things begin to fall away.
Before I go on, let me give a huge shout out to being a grandparent. It is terrific. It’s a joy to see our babies have babies and go through all the stages of life. It’s freeing to have the distance of a generation between the responsibility of raising a child and the sheer wonder of watching lives blossom and grow. I have four grandsons and each one of them has blessed me in deep and important ways. One of the most challenging times for me was when my children left home. It was a terrific adjustment to go from family life to just two. All the laser focus we spent on our children and their well-being came to an abrupt halt. They left and they needed to be on their own and we were proud of them, but it also hurt. We had done our job, but now what?
For some, careers go on for quite a long time. I quit my teaching job at age sixty and was very fortunate to embark on overseas missions work in India. I also began writing for the first time and improved my craft through conferences, reading, and hard work. Both of those interests saved me. I needed purposeful work to fill the void family life had left.
But eventually, careers, hobbies, nearly all endeavors come to an end and the latter years of life overtake us. What then?
Here are a few things I’d like younger people to know about those who have grown older:
What We Know:
In Christian circles, people like to talk about the wisdom of the older generation. But I’m here to tell you that merely getting older doesn’t necessarily make me wiser. The benefit I have is a greater perspective, more years to examine and a longer time to have made my mistakes and to have learned from them. If I chose to learn I may have some wisdom to pass along.
For instance, in my teaching career, I worked over a span of forty years. I knew very well what first and second graders needed to learn. I knew how to teach those things. But as time went by the methods kept changing. I adjusted and learned new ways to teach, but I also nearly killed myself trying to add in the things that had been discarded along the way. When I retired, I gave a sigh of relief. It wasn’t that the new ways were horrible, but they were often passing fads and I knew that because of earlier fads that had faded into the woodwork. The system doesn’t allow for good teaching to go unhindered. Everyone has to lockstep into the next new way. It was exhausting and sometimes downright silly, but I never lost my love for teaching children.
Sometimes older people know factual information or have honed various skills. We may know how to encourage younger folks going through some of the same struggles we did. But, truly, sometimes we just want to be treated like any other person and not be expected to wax wise. We just want to have younger friends on an equal basis. We just want to be normal human beings.
What We Used to Be Like:
When my mom and dad lived in an assisted living facility I visited often. I used to look at the old and feeble folks eating their meals and spilling down their fronts and wonder what they were like when they were younger. Were they pretty or handsome? What careers did they follow? What personalities did they have? Were they funny, kind, witty, accomplished? Were they boorish or mean-spirited?
Everyone old was once young. Their frail and unattractive bodies used to be healthy and robust. They were babies, children, teens, young adults, young marrieds, and all the rest. Then they got old. They are still fully human, and although they need care for their daily living, they’re worthy of kindness. There is no need to pity them. They’re just going through the end time of the life they’ve been given. They have nothing to apologize for even though they need assistance to make it through each day. Younger folks can do the helping. They’ll be old one day, too.
I was an inquisitive, but shy little kid. I didn’t make friends easily. I was smart and bossy and a bit of an outsider. Then in my teens, I discovered my place amongst the “smart kids.” I didn’t believe I was smart, but I found out if I studied I could get good grades. Having a smart boyfriend didn’t hurt. I discovered acting and music and took leading roles in productions which helped break through my shyness barriers.
In college, I reveled in my newfound freedom and in the world of learning. I found the things I believed in and supported causes. Life was good. I got married and had two children who became my life. We moved around the country living in Berkeley, on the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona, in Virginia, Washington, and Oregon. We made so many friends in all those different places. We worked in the church and life was full and rich and busy.
We began a work in India and traveled there many times. We saw other parts of the world, different cultures, and tried very hard to make a small difference in the lives of the poor. Then we got older. Our lives became smaller, more restricted, but still meaningful.
What We Can’t Do:
Most of us don’t enjoy asking for help. We prefer to be independent. But as we age, we have to ask for help more often. I absolutely hate to be embarrassed. I don’t like to appear stupid. But sadly, getting older means we don’t know how to do various things. We don’t know the buzz words the young use. We don’t know music and movies and television shows that are streamed rather than being on the three major networks of old. We don’t know how to manage technology. I mean, we really don’t know. Few folks in their seventies or older were ever taught anything about the theory of computers. That came a generation after us. So we just plod along, trying to keep our passwords straight and fumble through as best we can. It’s embarrassing to have to ask for help when the darn things don’t work, but we need bailing out from time to time.
We can’t live at the same breakneck pace we used to. We have to plan ahead and be sure we have all our medicines with us when we travel. We can’t miss a night’s sleep and act as if that were normal like we did in college. We get tired and have less energy.
We don’t adjust to changes as well as we once did. We loved the worship music of the 70s that reflected contemporary folk music or a bit of rock and roll. We become bored with the new choruses that seem sort of empty and shallow. Some of us grew up with hymns and would love to sing those from time to time. We want the things we enjoyed when we were in the prime of life. Those things still carry meaning for us.
What We Need:
I knew the years had piled up for me when the check-out boys started calling me “Ma’am.” Back in the day, I got my fair share of attention for being pretty. I didn’t deserve it necessarily, but there you are. In our culture, we appreciate beauty. Needless to say, when you get old, that kind of appreciation has flown the coop. And probably that is just fine.
But we do need appreciation. We need to have our ideas heard and we need to have true friends, not just acquaintances. We may be able to find friendships amongst our peers where we don’t have to explain anything, but we also need friends who are younger.
I’ve explained to some that getting older feels like slowly fading and becoming invisible. The world just speeds by and we feel as if no one sees us at all. We lose influence. We lose control. Of course, people are polite. But when you’re looking for friends, polite is like kissing your father-in-law—it just doesn’t carry much pizzazz.
What older people need is what anyone needs. To be appreciated for who we are. To be heard. No one has to agree with us, but it’s wonderful when people are willing to share a little time with us and be real.
Getting old has its challenges, but it also has benefits. I never set an alarm anymore and I can sleep whenever I want. I have all the time in the world to follow my interests and read or write or play tennis or garden. I can hire someone to clean my house if I get too lazy and I can waste time which was never a choice when I was younger.
I have time to think and ponder the important issues of life. I’m more willing to take a stand for what is right and just than when I was younger. I count each day I’m given a blessing and an opportunity to both give to others and enjoy my life. Fully one third of my high school graduating class members have passed on. Life is short. Each day counts.
Getting old is hard. Getting old is a blessing. Getting old is beautiful.
Deli talks about youth work and how the church can foster growth in youth.
Indy looks back on her childhood and argues that our children might be some of the most overlooked members of our congregations.