They call it aging, but that is not an accurate word for growing old.
Aging is a universal thing. It’s what everybody does every day. Between birth and our eighteenth birthdays aging is called “growing up,” and I remember that we could not wait to do it, always acting as if we were older than we were. Aging simply means going through the life cycle: baby, infant, child, youth, adolescent, young adult, adult, middle age (here titles become tricky), mature adult, senior. Among old people we may still distinguish “young old” (65-74), “middle old” (75-84), and “oldest old” (85+). In this season we experience aging as a corrosion of our present form of existence.
I am on the border of middle old and oldest old. I live independently in a resident home for seniors. Assisted living is the next step down (or up). For those of us in this time of life, aging is an occupation. There are programs in which we are urged to participate because they will help us “age successfully.” Thus far I have avoided them. These programs are wisely composed by experts in gerontology. And the experts constantly tell us that by keeping active physically, socially, and spiritually, we will “live better longer.” I believe the “better” part, but the “longer” is debatable.
Let me try to enumerate a few of the good and the bad things that accompany old age.
First, I don’t have to work for a living. Government and pension checks always arrive on time. My children don’t need me anymore—although I increasingly need them. I can sleep in as long as I want and go to bed as late as I please. That may sound exciting to a young person, but the negatives are that I tend to fall asleep when I should not and cannot get to sleep when I should. I have loads of good memories and I have great promises for an unknown future. My present life is as good as I could hope it to be.
Most old people experience loneliness. I do, too, but to a far lesser degree than many others because I can still get around. I can even do some volunteer work for people who are being cared for in the other buildings.
My wife died 18 months ago, and I miss her every day. Numerous friends and acquaintances have died. Four of my six brothers have gone ahead of me. Yet I have far more to bless than to curse, and my prayers have more praise than lament.
Loneliness is built into the structures of life as we live it now. All residents in my building are old people. Children and young couples live elsewhere. This separation of age groups began during my lifetime. When I was a child I sat in and listened when my parents entertained visitors. My grandfather lived next to us until the day he died. He was part of our lives. Sometimes he would interfere in the family life of my parents. I am not even tempted to do something like that. Most of my children live far away. But I have a bell in the bedroom and I can pull a chain in my bathroom if I need help. I have a cell phone and I check for e-mails every morning.
I don’t always know whether to be happy or sad that age groups now have their own programs, lifestyles, music, and so on. We gained and we lost, I suppose. Only in church are we still together for worship. I love seeing young families come in. I lean forward when the small children hop to the front for the children’s message. Last Sunday we had teenagers reporting on a “SERVE project,” and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Perhaps the worst thing about getting and being old is that you lose control of your own life.
Of course, we never have ultimate control. I’ve made it a habit to say that I would do this or that, “God willing.” But any mature person must control the life entrusted to him or her. To be human means to make numerous decisions every day. You go or you don’t go, you do or you don’t do. But when you are old, others start making decisions about you and without you. Even your own body does not obey your commands. That’s when you know you’re in trouble.
Many of us cannot stretch our arms or move our legs by deciding to do so. The body wants to sit and rest. Some people say, “Listen to your body,” but they also tell us to “keep exercising.” You don’t always know what to do. Bodily functions you never thought about now don’t do what they’re supposed to do. But I’ll tell you no more about my body or you would get, what we call here, yet another “organ recital.”
The association for older people sends us a magazine every month that shows a man of 80 who runs a marathon and a woman of 90 who swims 10 laps every morning. But don’t be fooled. They are in the paper because they are abnormal. I belong to the unpublished group.
Finally, you have to deal with fears that accompany old age. This is the time when people are afraid of heights and of dangers in the street (Eccles. 12). I still drive my car, but I avoid doing so in certain places and hours.
Notice that I said I still drive my car. People slip that word into their questions without thinking: “Do you still walk around the block?” “Do you still go to your own church on Sunday?” It means, “We know it won’t be long anymore. We know you are getting weaker; you are going to die.”
I don’t fear death because Jesus has taken the fear out of dying: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather, it puts an end to sinning and is our entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 16).
The transition, though, the act of dying, is fearful. I have witnessed it a few times, and I don’t want to go through it. But I’ll have to do so, unless the Lord comes first.
The greatest fear of us elderly folks is that we should “lose our marbles” before we die, to say it popularly. We have a whole floor here reserved for those with different forms of dementia. Dementia is one of the most painful robberies. People who used to be bright and beautiful become “out of it” and pitiable. But they are still loved by God and by other faithful ones.
Sometimes I pray a prayer titled “Let Me Get Home Before Dark,” by Robertson McQuilken. It tells God about the fear that hits you when you think how this life might end. The last stanza goes like this:
. . . will I reach the gate in lingering pain—body distorted, grotesque? Or will it be a mind wandering untethered among light phantasies or grim terrors? Of your grace, Father, I humbly ask . . . let me get home before dark.