Coming alongside in the twilight years
She was lying with her back to me. By then, she needed help turning in her bed, and there was no room at the other side for me to sit to face her. But even with her back to me, I could be with her. I could wait with her. As I waited, I reflected on what this gracious 88-year-old woman of God had come to mean to me.
I was one of her pastors. She was my friend, my prayer companion, my reminder of all things good, my teacher of how to age gracefully, and, yes, my help in understanding that the end of life is only the door to the next – a passage for which she longed more and more.
I only knew her in the “older” years of her life. As I accompanied her through some of the days of this part of her life, she showed me what aging looked like. Society wants to keep us in denial about aging. It holds youth as the epitome of what is best. But she never saw her age as failure or loss. It was just the next part of life that had its own set of joys, doubts, capabilities, and problems. And so I became a student – learning what aging meant to her.
It was in the process of being with her that I became a better pastor – especially as I interacted more and more with those who lead the way in age. It helped me change my attitude about those 20 and 30 years my senior. It gave me more comfort in talking about aging and all that it brings to people.
There are many lessons to learn about aging and about caring for those in the latter part of life; four stand out for me:
First of all, I learned that humour helps us get through the day. A good laugh about the realities of aging makes it just a bit easier to carry on. Laughter about the antics of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren relieves some of the pain of the day. A good laugh is a reminder of God’s presence. Psalm 68:3 says: “…may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.” Finding humour in a situation eases the worries and lifts our souls. Humour brightens our days.
Secondly, I learned that there are several perspectives through this time. In the aging process, loss and grief are regular companions. Loss of spouse, the privation of health, the varying stages of increasing dependence and setting aside those things we thought gave identity and meaning to living are only a few of the changeable things. Each of these deprivations needs to be acknowledged and, many times, mourned.
Mourning certainly is one perspective. But another is rejoicing and continuing to be a giver. New horizons open with the realization that all of life’s experiences can be relied on. This is not the time to give up interest in what is happening around us. Technology and terminology may pass us by, but there are still things that appeal to our interests. Cultivate those along with friendship and caring. Those around us still benefit from our interested questions. Perhaps it will take some thought to find the question that will give more than a yes-or-no answer.
It’s not only the elderly who need to keep perspective in mind. Families and church communities may bring perspective to their older relatives and members. As you call to mind an older person in your sphere of influence – think of all he or she has given: within the family, fathers and mothers have provided home, experience, care, and love; within the church, servants have provided leadership and spiritual guidance. Acknowledge their contributions – and recognize that though their active roles may diminish, providing some place of service and opportunity for people at all ages and stages of health is our gift to them.
It may be as simple as calling some of your older family members or older church associates to ask for prayer for a specific need. Perhaps you are struggling with some life decision. Including older people in your conversation about how to solve your problem is a benefit to you and to them. An older person has insights and experience that may surprise you.
It troubles me when I hear various older folk say they feel “useless.” Once again, I want to blame society for defining what it means to be useful. The assumption is that “being useful” gives value to who we are. Yet, it is not just about “doing.” We are created to bear God’s image – and when we claim uselessness we are commenting on God’s image. The perspective during these years of “less doing” means that we are able to enter more fully into the time of being. This is a time of leaning and resting, a time to find contentment in waiting and prayer.
Thirdly, I learned about encouragement. Help, support, inspiration – all of these words describe encouragement. We are drawn to the word because it spells hope for us. It’s refreshing to hear that our actions or words have made a difference in someone’s life. The act of encouraging works both ways – we can give it and we can receive it.
My friend taught me that to experience encouragement one also needs to become an encourager. Early in my years as her pastor, she came to the office on a weekly basis to encourage. Whether it was a question about how I was doing or a verse that had come to mean something to her, her aim was to encourage. I also saw how her encouragement to us as staff came back to her as encouragement too. Her prayer, inspiration, and challenges to me resulted in my becoming a better pastor, able to return encouragement to her through my ministry. I well understand Paul’s reference in Romans 1:12 to being “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” As I listened to her faith story (and many of my older friends’ since then), I am encouraged to know these saints have remained faithful to God.
Finally, I have learned about prayer. There is no gift more needed or more powerful than the gift of prayer for another. To sit with my friend as I did for many years, Thursday morning – showed me her soul and her faith in God. In pouring out her heart before God, she claimed God’s presence into the life of her family, her church, and her friends. And I saw it change her. It changed her into being peaceful and restful in God’s timing and in God’s way of working out the answers to her prayers. Prayer was conversation with God about the things that God was already doing something about. She just joined God in talking about their mutual concerns.
My reflection and time of prayer on behalf of my friend had come to a close. It was time to leave the hospital room. I leaned into the space on the other side of the bed so I could look into her face. She opened her eyes, looked into mine and whispered, “I love you.” Those were the last words she spoke to me – for while I was away at Gathering, she made the journey to new life in heaven. God granted her wish.
Lorraine Dick is currently living in Langley, B.C., and attending South Langley Church. Some of her time is spent caring for seniors in her life.