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Archive for June, 2017

Perhaps the tragedy of old age is that we do not prepare ourselves for its onset.  We spend our lives seeking to deal with things, or others, or challenges – how often do we spend time trying to figure out what to do with ourselves when we cross the threshold into old age?  When does this occur anyway?  How do we know we are at the threshold of old age?  Perhaps this is why we are not ready.  Perhaps we don’t know we have crossed the threshold until we look back and become aware that we did so.

The threshold is internal.  This is what is what makes it so disconcerting for many.  We wake up one morning and discover that we are ‘old.’ I don’t think it matters whether someone else ‘names’ us as being ‘old’ – it matters, it seems to me, whether I deem myself to be ‘old.’  Although if a number of folks treat me as ‘old’ (consistently and for some time) then I think I might resign myself to being old.  On the other hand, perhaps I will take Dylan Thomas’s advice and ‘rage’ against my accusers.

Some primitive peoples abandoned the elderly and literally left them out in the ‘cold’ to die.  Today we put our elderly in luxury assisted living apartments or in nasty nursing homes.  Some families make sure the elderly remain in their home or they take them into their own homes.

How do we care for the elderly?  When do we step in to ‘take over’?  When does an ‘elder’ ask for help?  My parents were clear: ‘We do not want to be a burden!’  It is ironic, for they raised six children and never – that we knew of anyway – indicated that we were a burden.  How do we communicate to the elderly that they are – or might become – burdens?

I become incensed when I think about the many ways we enable the elderly to become children.  We actually devise programs and living situations that help engender a ‘second childhood’ for the elderly.  The ‘games’ and ‘hobbies’ and ‘crafts’ that help engender the second childhood deplete the inner strength of the elderly.  Oh, we do not set out to deplete their inner strength; we actually think we are being helpful and caring.  My parents provided me a model to follow: They made sure that they developed and engaged in multi-generational relationships.  They each had close relationships with 3-4 generations and this enabled them to nurture their inner strengths.  In addition to developing and maintaining cross-generational relationships, they continued to serve others.  This powerful combination of ‘relationships’ and ‘serving’ nurtured them and sustained them and kept them from becoming ‘old.’

How do we help those crossing the threshold of old age to continue to study, grow, mature, serve, and contribute?  How do we help them connect with 2-3 generations – so they can contribute and so they can also be served?  How do we help them remain engaged in life, in their lives and thus remain ‘full of life’?  How do we help the elderly avoid the trivialization of old age?  How do we help one another – all of us – discern, embrace and savor the mysteries and wonders and gifts of old age?

Old age has its ‘ills.’  Here are a few of the ‘spiritual ills’ of old age that we must attend to: (1) The sense of being useless  – of becoming a burden to our family and society; (2) The sense of inner emptiness, becoming useless and becoming bored; (3) The fear of loneliness and the fear of time.  How do we help the elderly embrace these ‘ills’ so they do not become debilitating or chronic?  We will begin to briefly explore each of these next time.

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Tragedy!  Embedded in this powerful word is another powerful word: Rage.  I do not know why this word ‘Tragedy’ entered into my consciousness this morning.  As I sit here looking at the word and the word within the word a line from a poem washes over me.  Pause…  I just looked up the poem and this morning I will share the poem with you.  The poem was written by Dylan Thomas.  For me, he captures the ‘rage’ that helps us avoid the ‘tragedy’ of old age.  Gentle reader, what does the poem call forth from within you?

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

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Many believe – and I believe – that I have been designated for this work by God.  In spite of my old age, I do not want to give it up; I work out of love for God and I put all my hope in him. –Michelangelo

One test of a culture, a nation, a people is how it relates toward the old.  For many it is easy to love an infant or a child; even tyrants and dictators make it a point to show affection to the children.  Consider, however, that the care, compassion and love for the old are three of the true veins of gold that a culture, a nation, a people have and can mine (should mine?).

In our country we officially maintain that ALL are created equal – this includes the old.  What is stunning to me is that too often some of us feel called upon to plead for such equality.  Other cultures, nations, and people (think China, India, and Japan for example) seek to ensure that the elderly are honored and cared for (culturally, by their families if not by the country).

In ‘Part I’ I noted that we ‘People of the Book’ are charged directly by God to have reverence for our fathers and mothers – for the elderly.  In the spirit of this principle that reverence of the old is God-commanded we (as a culture, nation, people) might well feel compelled to be ready to sell our ‘treasures’ in order to care for one sick old person.  Is there anything as holy – and today as urgent – as our (as a culture, nation, people) commitment to care for the elderly?  (A need which will only rapidly increase during the next twenty years or so.)

As a nation we do seek, via Social Security, to care for the physical needs of the elderly.  Yet we tend to ignore the elderly’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs.  How do we help save the elderly from despondency, if not despair?  How do we provide truth, beauty and goodness to old age?  How do we show reverence for the elderly?  How do we help to intellectually stimulate the minds of the elderly?  How do we help the elderly nurture more than deplete their spirits?

Old age presents a major challenge to the elderly’s inner life.  The elderly need to be sustained by wisdom and strength so they do not resign themselves to simply ‘growing old.’  How do we help ensure that the elderly are not judged (condemned?) to be ‘inferior?’

In our country we value those who are ‘productive.’  In many ways the elderly are viewed and treated as liabilities – they are no longer productive.  Our culture dehumanizes us – employees are viewed (and labeled) as ‘cogs in the machine,’ or as ‘assets,’ or as ‘resources’ or as ‘commodities;’ they are not viewed as fully human beings.

These machine and banking metaphors allow us to guilt-free discard the elderly for they have lost their ‘value.’  We deny that the ‘ghost in the machine’ is still alive and needs to be cared for.  How often do the elderly actually apologize for being alive?  I still have tears well-up when I remember my mother looking at me and declaring: ‘I don’t want to be a burden!’    

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During the past twelve months three of my friends had parents who celebrated their birthdays – each parent was in his or her late 90s.  Both of my parents were in their nineties when they died. Also, recently, on two separate occasions I was directly referred to as ‘old.’  Yesterday my older brother, Steve, and I found ourselves laughing about ‘old age.’  As I thought about all of this,  I began to reflect, once again, on ‘old age.’

What is emerging at times seems to be a ‘rant’ and at other times seems to be more ‘reflective’ – hence the title: ‘Old Age – A Reflective Rant.’  A gift of old age is that one can rant and folks will excuse the rant and say things like:  ‘Don’t mind his ranting on; just chalk it up to old age!’  This is the ‘gift’ – we old folks have the freedom to rant on and on.  The downside of this will be made clear in a bit.

I am not sure when ‘old age’ sets in.  Some say it’s an attitude.  Some say it quickly follows ‘retirement’ (whatever that is).  My father died when he was 91 and only in his last year of life did I consider him to be old – and this occurred only a few times.  I did not consider my mother to be old until I was with her in hospice the afternoon she died.  There was a light, a shining light, in their blue eyes that belied their years.

On the other hand, when I attended our 20th high school reunion I saw a man there who was 38 and looked 138.  Jim was not ‘ill’ he was ‘dis-eased’ with life and had been for some time.  He was ‘old beyond his years.’  Airline pilots are deemed to be ‘too old to be captains’ at age 65.  In some states, surgeons are deemed to be ‘too old to be the lead surgeon’ at age 65.  Competency is not the issue – ‘old age’ is.   On the other hand, certain ‘appointments’ are made for ‘life’ (think Supreme Court); so competency, again, does not seem to come into play.

There is a running debate in our country regarding these two questions: ‘What do we OWE the old?’  ‘Do we OWE the old anything?’  Given the current debate regarding ‘health-care’ these questions are crucial (well, I think they are crucial).

‘What do we owe the old?’  We owe the old reverence!  Interestingly, I never heard an old person request this.  On the other hand, I have heard (more than a few times) us old folks ask for things like ‘consideration,’ ‘attention,’ and ‘not to be discarded nor forgotten.’  One father and mother will raise 12 children and yet 12 children are unable to care for one father and one mother (how about this for a definition of obscenity?).

How often do we consider caring for the old as an act of charity rather than a privilege (or even as an ‘obligation’ or a ‘duty’)?

We ‘People of the Book’ (that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims) were gifted with the Ten Commandments.  How often do we forget that our God proclaimed loud and clear: Revere your father and your mother!  There is no reverence for our God without reverence for father and mother.

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