Growing old is a messy business. Nothing precise or clean-cut about it. No instruction sheet:
At age 50: join AARP,
At 60 have hearing checked
At age 70: get trifocals
At age 80: accept that a lot of food tastes like wallpaper paste
At age 85 – well, that’s when things get really mixed up and messy. The tooth fairy comes too often and the sandman too slowly. The smell of deep-fat fried foods has you reaching for your antacids. You hope you brought your medications when you go out to eat. And in the middle of a conversation, you stop, embarrassed. You forgot a name you know as well as your own. But it’s gone – for about ten minutes. And then it floats back into your consciousness, boasting: “I was there all along!”
I hear many kinds of thinking about aging. The biggie is that aging is mostly a medical issue. You don’t die of old age. You always die of some medical condition like a heart attack, pneumonia, cancer, diabetes – you name it.
Aging is an illness, proponents of this view say. Aging is something to combat and defeat, including all appearances of it. A wrinkle is a sign of a major battle lost. A gray hair means a slide down the ladder and out. Add more creams and lotions, more exercise, better-chosen food and you’ll be racing with the 30-year-olds. At 100-plus you’ll still be entering marathons.
Oh yeah? I don’t see many hundred-year-olds dancing and prancing. For one thing, there aren’t many of them around. For another, I see more older people using canes and walkers than any other age group. If aging is mostly a medical problem why don’t I see young people struggling with the issues that afflict those of us who are in our 70s and 80s?
The 2010 Census figures show that about 13 percent of the U.S. population is over 65, 27% widowed. I am always interested in knowing how many are in my widowed shoes.
Here’s a significant projection: By the year 2050 the plus 65 population will be 20 percent. In churches, where such people tend to congregate, it will be at least 25 to 30% -- approximately one in three. That’s not counting those in their fifties and early sixties. That’s a lot of people living messy lives.
A different approach to aging than the rigidly medical one makes more sense: Growing old is part of being human. It is part of God’s timing for our lives. Old age, the period no one can escape, is the time to accept that human life is limited even with the best of medical attention. Death is part of life.
God, our Creator, who has given us free choice in how to live our lives gives us no choice whether we want to die or keep on living on this earth forever and ever. When life gets messy you have to consciously develop a new series of choices – letting go of knick-knacks, household belongings, cars, money, even quirky beliefs that have clung to our faith for decades. All of these things don’t matter. Yet even as you let go, you have to deliberately keep going on.
Letting go of the body means taking greater care of the soul.
I’ve marked many passages related to aging in the Psalms. The psalmist writes about bearing fruit in old age and but also that we “finish our lives with a moan.” Some translations read “with a sigh.” The sigh is for the messy parts of aging he was experiencing centuries ago.
The psalmist also writes about bearing fruit in old age, about staying fresh and green. He was saying that growing old has its diminishments but also its choices and glories.
He also prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart a wisdom.” I think he was saying that aging is a task that must be done consciously, day by day.
So, I pray to God each morning, “Give me grace to bear the weaknesses of being human and courage to enjoy its strengths.” So I begin my day consciously working with today’s mess.