On a soft spring day, I looked out my window to see the neighbour’s mature crab tree in full bloom. Its tall, fully rounded shape was blanketed in a carpet of pink-lilac blossoms. Unbidden, a thought emerged, “I want to be like that when I’m old.” Years later, I can still recall the beautiful, magnificent tree and the visual it offered of aging well.
My thoughts often turn towards aging these days, what it means to age gracefully, or gracelessly would be the alternative, I suppose. As I companion my 85-year-old mother and as I pastor the seniors in my congregation, I witness the journey of many people in the final years of life. Often I am awed and moved to tears by the beauty they display, their deeply held faith, their quietly secure trust and the grace they extend to themselves and others. Regularly I am reminded that there are enormous challenges in aging and that there is no one mould that fits all. Histories; physical, emotional and spiritual health; personalities and circumstances all play a part.
Some individuals are human expressions of the beautiful, blooming tree. Perhaps the psalmist had them in mind when he spoke of people “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season; their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Such people are a joy to be around, a testimony to a well-lived life right up to the end of their days. As the Apostle Paul enjoins, they are “joyful in hope, patient in suffering and persevering in prayer” (Romans 12:12).
And then there are others, illustrated by a cartoon of two crones discussing their futures. When one says she wants to age gracefully, her companion replies, “Not me. I’m more the ‘oh-no-what-has she done now?’ kind.”
A Swedish book by Jonas Jonasson and its companion movie, The-Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, was farcical and very funny. It is hard not to cheer on the spunk of the lead character, as he encounters and surmounts many obstacles. It is hard not to cheer, unless one is the anxious, bewildered family member trying to walk alongside the spirited elder who climbs out the window or its equivalent.
What does it mean to age gracefully anyhow? I’ve been taking a little poll and the responses often sound like proverbs. Accept limitations (most frequently cited), stay active and maintain a positive spirit. Cultivate patience. Avoid self-centredness; keep a lively interest in others and the world. Work less, let the young take leadership; mentor and encourage them. Embrace new opportunities. Celebrate the wisdom that comes with a long life.
These maxims came from people who appear to be aging well, or hoping to do so. For others I asked, the question seemed to be burdensome, as if it were one more stone piled onto someone weighed down by the pain and losses of old age. They struggled with the value-laden question, uncomfortable with what could be a judgment that they had failed to age with grace. I winced at my own insensitivity. Aging is full of losses and laments; while grace is to be found, it is sometimes overshadowed by weighty hurts.
At the end that is the destination of aging we can trust the grace that will be present. One responder to my question spoke of a relative who had died surrounded by those who loved her. We agreed that such times are a part of aging well, grace-filled gifts for the dying and the living.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.
See a story about Melissa and her elderly mother: “A transformational moment.”