What’s new in aging: six 21st-century themes

The BBC used to produce a weekly situation comedy called Waiting for God. It wasn’t about faith or theology; it was about retirement home residents awaiting the end of their lives. The British humour in the title reflects the fears in all of us: that waiting is about all there is to do (along with being ill) when you get old. I can remember a Christian counselling course from the same era, in which the professor, a psychiatrist, taught that the one distinctive theme among older people is loss. Not fun stuff.

Perhaps the industrial model, mandatory retirement and a social fixation on being productive brought a loss of dignity to people over 65, especially over the last century. North Americans tried to give it a positive spin with the label “Golden Age,” a term that seemed hollow to many. Now, the Baby Boomers are taking possession of the senior demographic and the tune is changing.

With this shift, many good new books on aging have been published over the past two decades. Aging myths are giving way to encouraging advice to new seniors – and their families! – to make the most of their time in a positive way. Current literature tends to cluster around six themes.

  • Older age can be the most fulfilling part of your life. Take stock: what passions and talents and values do you want to embrace, now? How has God “wired” you? What do you do well? This is the “third third” of a long and mostly healthy life, no longer encumbered by work and worry. Enjoy it!
  • Decide on your personal legacy. This stage of life gives great opportunity to become intentional in how you can bless loved ones or your community.
  • Stay healthy by altering your lifestyle. The aging process makes this no longer optional, but imperative if you wish to enjoy your “third third.” There are many books and lots of good advice on the internet. Stay with credible websites and talk to your health provider to keep on track.
  • Keep up your social life and activities. Some aging folks become hermits through the normal attrition of friends occasioned by moving, illness or even death. The modern mantra is to keep up with your old friends and make new ones – including younger people. It’s about emotional and social health as well as enjoyment.
  • For all of society, perhaps especially churches, listen up: don’t put your elders out to pasture. There is now a body of literature pointing out that years of wisdom, love, experience and desire to participate are too frequently ignored or squelched by churches, social and business organizations. Most of this literature stresses that change must come from those most affected: it’s up to aging people to be assertive and fight for change.
  • Aging isn’t scary, so plan for it. It may sound trite, but it is important to face your ultimate demise proactively. Modern advisors write that it’s best for you and for your loved ones to know your priorities so that your life can end as you wish, leaving no wreckage for your offspring to wrestle with. Many authors argue that secrets in this realm are not healthy. Bring your family into what you are thinking and what you have decided. Let them know your reasons. They are, after all, adults. Show them love and respect. Demonstrate that family is important.

It can be like gold to realize that later life can be the “best part.” The more recent authors urge seniors not to live in denial they are aging. Do take stock, they say. Do consider what human and spiritual and experiential legacy you want to leave, not just to your children, but to your grandchildren. This is a wonderful thing.

They also leave other positive messages. Don’t overlook your work associates and friends when you think about your personal legacy. Do consider what mentoring you can do. What stories can you share about your growing up, your early years of marriage, your travels, your faith?

That last one, faith, is huge for me; I want to share the richness of what God has shown – about himself. To embrace the reality that the last part of your life can be richest is, literally, life-changing.

Recent knowledge on aging is now available through a variety of books. But the greatest gift in this storehouse is a reiteration of a pertinent, lifelong question: Lord, who did you create me to be? How would you have me use my life – now?

We know that all these treasures will pale when we move to our ultimate life blessing and see him face to face. So, all of this “aging” business actually is about how we “wait for God.”

[Barrie McMaster is a member of Broadway MB Church, Chilliwack, B.C.

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