1 Thess. 5:17 "pray continually,"
IIn a few weeks our family will be traveling to help celebrate our matriarch’s 101st birthday. Five years ago we all gathered to celebrate my father-in-law’s 100th birthday. He really wanted to reach that century mark and he continued living for another four months. Last year the family gathered for an open house birthday party at the assisted living facility where my mother-in-law has lived for several years. She insisted that she didn’t want any mention that she was 100 years old or party for her. However, within the family, three people have birthdays on the same day so we marked the day for everyone involved.
My mother’s last nuclear family member, my aunt, recently turned 99 years old. My maternal grandmother died past her 100th birthday. So on both sides of the family we are sharing the roller coaster of super-old relatives who go through times when we are certain they will die and then they rally and surprise us. Most of us younger ones are amazed at the strength and determination in that Greatest Generation who (some) lived through two World Wars and more, the Depression, advances in technology, science, and nutrition, plus the pain of family tragedies. In his 80s my father-in-law even learned how to use the computer to email. All the centenarians thrilled to see or hold their great-grandchildren.
When we mention to others about the long lives of our loved ones we often hear, “Oh, isn’t that great.” Or “What a blessing to have them for so long.” Yet as the loved ones have progressed into more needed care, some debilitating diseases or loss of vision/hearing/mobility, I have not always responded with optimism or gratitude. Past 95-years-old, most of them have not been able to remain active or continue with enjoyed activities— from others’ perspectives. We have had to help make hard decisions about their homes, possessions and health care.
For those of us who are several generations behind the people who end up in assisted living/nursing facilities, hospitals or foster homes—we sometimes don’t see any point to such extended years. We question their quality of life issues as we judge them. Yet the reasons for living seem to change over time. As the super-old world becomes smaller, so may their expectations or list of requirements for enjoyment. Reasons for living might include a daily ice cream treat, regular family visits, church services in person or on TV, their pets, seeing flowers and birds, sing-a-longs, a roommate, and reviewing photo albums and memorbilia. Some people simply do not want to die, or fear death, while others want to continue to watch their family members grow. And those reasons for living, or their level of importance can flux daily according to health, and loss of family or friends. Someone in bed barely breathing may be dressed and eating a few days later.
Certainly aging can seem like a very limited and introspective time to those who are younger. The Western culture is determined to dye the gray, fill in the wrinkles, whiten the teeth, take enough pills, and pretend that youth is never-ending. Perhaps the “I don’t want to be a burden” philosophy is one result of being surrounded by a seeming disregard for “being.” As life transitions from doing to being, others may not understand or mock the determination to continue living. Our church, community and family values can provide support and respect for life whether it’s beginning or ending. If we would slow down long enough to walk together or sit together, the seniors have stories to share, and hearing about others’ lives can prompt some of their early memories. (Much history for junior high and high school students is being learned from memoirs.)
The Book of Ecclesiastes paints a dismal and discouraging picture of old age, according to Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived (Chapter 12). However, the book was written as that man reflected on a life that became meaningless since he had not relied on God. The relationship with God may be the most abiding one to provide stability and courage as all other relationships end or change. Partnering with God can also provide an ongoing sense of purpose such as a ministry of prayer for others, expressing gratitude and love, or recording life’s spiritual journey.
If we are blessed with many years, we will model aging and faith for the next generation, and perhaps grant them more reasons for living. I like the Apostle Paul’s philosophy of aging in Romans 14:7-8 (NIV): “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
Questions for personal journaling and group discussion:
Karen Spruill writes from Florida.