Aging Gracefully

Posted Oct 14, 2021

Terence McQuiston

I am indeed aging both physically and cognitively. I can only extrapolate speculatively into a foggy, uncertain future. How will my old age evolve? How should, or can, I plan for it? I expect there will be more losses, but will there be any new opportunities? What do I want to be able to look back on?

To me, the first task of old age is to come to terms with the fact of our mortality. Not all do. Many hide from this, putting the question off, or hiding in pleasant fantasies. Many other people in our society do address mortality in some fashion, making out wills and appointing POAs. You can read the words of the old preacher “Qoholeth” in Ecclesiastes or take a stroll through a cemetery. All around us, we see signs of our finitude. Our bodies and abilities are slowly deteriorating. In one way this is a blessing. No one can say we don’t get advance warning! “Ye know not the day or the hour,” said Jesus.

As for questions of life beyond death, for most people, it’s a matter of speculation. They feel that no one really knows, so we should muddle on as best we can, looking for some meaning in our offspring and finding some sense of purpose in whatever legacy we can leave to the next generation. What of the interim, if we don’t die suddenly? Shall we try to fill the time with a “bucket list” of pleasures, or hang on to family and friends even as they move elsewhere or pass away? For most of us,the “Golden Years” are ultimately a fraud. Our opportunities will dwindle as our burdens multiply. A psychiatrist that I knew used to call our Palliative Care ward “the waiting room of the Lord.”

How will we cope while we wait for the Lord? Will we still find hope? Will we find any meaning in life as it deteriorates into the final night? Negative perceptions can haunt us. We look back and rue our losses. We look ahead and fear yet more loss of certainty, safety, and control. We may look around us and feel shame: we’re of no use to anyone anymore, we’re just a burden to our families and to our society. We can get angry about this rotten life. Euthanasia may feel like we’re somehow taking control of death by causing our death in the timing and manner of our choosing, even though death constitutes the loss of all control.

However, the resurrection of Jesus changes everything. How? Because it’s crucial to our world’s future and our own. Because it really happened on this earth, in humanity’s time and space. It has power to renew us and the world. “Because I live, you too shall live,” Christ consoles us. We are given “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah from the dead.” His resurrection is both the sign and means of our own coming resurrection after our death. By faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we can find hope for our own, seeing beyond the valley of the shadow of death a faint but strengthening glow on the eastern horizon. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus’ resurrection can be experienced not only beyond our death, but also right now in our daily trials. He walks with us unseen, but heard in the footsteps of the apostles and saints who’ve gone before us, and also of those who walk alongside us now. Let’s learn from them all. Having fellowship in Jesus’ sufferings, we’ll find compensation for our losses and support for our burdens as He walks with us. The more our life’s a downer, the more we can find refreshment in His resurrection.

Which bring us to another question: How shall we live our old age in light of Jesus’ own death and resurrection? Here follows advice that I’m still learning myself.

Meditate regularly on Jesus’ resurrection, the accounts in the Gospels and other NT passages expounding its significance.

Refresh your apologetic of the resurrection, both for yourself and others. We live in a culture where many deny or ignore Jesus’ resurrection, and that can sap our own belief and our testimony to others.

Practice daily thanksgiving, especially when you might not feel like it. If we think about it, we can always find something for which to say, ‘Thank you.’ That becomes for us a sign of God’s unseen presence and His ongoing care for us.

”The Golden Years”? This is a pathetic substitute for heaven, and a substitute that will sooner or later disappoint. What is our “bucket list” in light of the Resurrection? A chance to repair and deepen our relationships? A chance to re-focus on projects that will outlast us? If you’ve put your affairs in order, stretch yourself: don’t be afraid to take some new, calculated risks. We can take our years of decline as yet another of God’s gifts to us.

Try to make new friends. Your old friends may be passing away. I think it behooves us to reach out to others who are as lonely as we are. Who knows? They might even become our friends.

Try to make young friends. Stretch yourself to enter their world. Yes, the IT world is a vast jungle, and you’ll succeed only partly, but they’ll notice your effort and appreciate you for it. As they get to know you, they’ll value your life experience when you relate it to their own lives. Look not just for what they can give to you, but also for what you can give to them.

Take care of yourself, even in your old age. He Who made you in His image wants you to. “But I’m of no use to God or to anyone else!” Rather than believe this thought, consider these words from a Christian poet who went blind in old age and could no longer serve his God in the same way; “They also serve who stand and wait.” Consider the resurrection of the Son of Man, and His presence with you even now. God loves you.

Regarding Power of Attorney and Living Wills: If you move into dementia, your POA is your best human defense. Try to find someone wise who shares your values, and ideally who’s younger than you, so they won’t get disabled before you do! As a physician, I’m unimpressed with most of the Living Wills I’ve seen. Too often they’re simply an attempt to bind the future, to somehow control the fearful unknown. But your best security is in your choice of POA, someone who knows you well enough to say when asked for a decision, “Yes, I think he would want this”, or “No, he would not want that.” I have frequently found this approach fruitful in helpingfamilies to make difficult decisions for their loved ones. My very conscientious sister is my own POA. I’ve told her, “If you make a mistake, I forgive you in advance.”

How can I cope with my losses? Losses come with the territory. “Old age is not for sissies,” said Billy Graham, as he coped with his Parkinson’s disease. Opportunities, including social opportunities, dwindle as our physical and mental disabilities increase. However, if we address our losses with faith in God, we can continue to live with gratefulness and joy,

Discover silver linings in these clouds. For example, two years ago I had to give up cycling because of my deteriorating balance. Coupled with COVID-19 rules, this meant I had to give up leading my beloved nature outings. Consequently, I began hosting one on one socially-distanced, nature walks. These made for more peaceful and intimate walks with a friend.

Graceful relinquishment: When we outlive our usefulness for a particular job or position, we shouldn’t fight it. Move aside for another of God’s servants. You’re never “useless” to God, and you can ask Him to give you something else to do. I learn that it never all depended on me. God has a silver lining.

Look for God’s gift in little things. God is glorified in the little things of our lives if we look for them. We learn this in our old age. if I’m in Palliative Care, a word of thanks to my caregiver, a kind word to my roommate, a prayer for the institution may not seem like much, yet these little things are meaningful in the eyes of the Eternal One. We can also find new pleasures in things that previously would have been too little to bother about. For example, many years ago I spent five weeks in our local cancer hospital and was very limited in what I could do. I had lots of time just to look around from my hospital bed. My window looked out onto the dark and dingy brick wall of the next building. However, I noticed that for about five minutes each day before supper, the rays of the setting sun hit that wall, bringing out a rich variety of colour in the bricks. It was beautiful! I found myself looking forward to this treat each day.

Our sufferings and frustrations can be used by God to refine our character, producing the virtue of humility (which is different from humiliation). The Bride is being prepared to meet the Bridegroom. Look past the refining work of pain, shame, and disability to the benefits. Chief among these is freedom from the taskmaster of pride. This reality-check prompts us to turn to God with our pleas and our hopes. The result can be a more intimate relationship with God. Old men like me are stereotypically called “crotchety” or “cantankerous”. Humility is the antidote to our futile anger. We discover that we don’t need pride to bolster our self-esteem. We’re sent the affirmation of grace from the Top. When we humbly resign control, laying it at His feet as it’s taken away from us, this is worship of the One from whom all things come. Yet, Jesus will restore our control and more in the resurrection to come: “Don’t you know that we will judge angels?” wrote St. Paul.

Are we ruefully fixated on the past? Do “old people hate change”? Loss prompts us to look

backward, dwelling on the rosy bits of our past. But we can’t go back there. When we try to, it can mire us in sorrow, and turn us into obstacles for everyone else. Instead, let the past go, as we would grieve for and release a departed loved one.

Treasure the memories as memories, and move on. Live in the present. We already know that we all will ultimately lose our valiant fight against disability and death. But because we know that Jesus is risen, we know that there is light and life on the other side. Scripture says not only that Jesus is risen, but that He ascended, was glorified at the Father’s right hand, and intercedes for us. “All authority in Heaven and Earth is given to Me.” So, He is here with us. “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the Age. So, I can live in the present with Jesus. Let me not hide from the future either. Only God knows what the future holds for any of us, but He sent His risen Son to walk into this unknown future with us. Since the Son of Man has risen, we know He’ll be with us both now and in whatever the uncertain future may hold, right up to our last breath.
Have I lost hope of anything good coming tomorrow? Whatever tomorrow may lack, it will never lack the Presence of the Lord Jesus, walking with us, suffering with us, and loving us. The little deaths that we experience on the way are often followed with little resurrections that we haven’t foreseen. Instead of ruing the loss of opportunities that I can no longer have, let me look for new, if humbler, opportunities resulting from the losses. Though smaller, the new ones, if embraced with humble thanks, can open me to a fuller experience of God’s grace and love. If I can’t find any new opportunities, let me remember that God loves me anyway, and desires my fellowship in His love. After my retirement He’s been giving me more of this than before. Have I lost all family and friends? This is hard. If our attempts to make new friends fail, we are driven back to our best friend, Jesus.

If I’ve lost my independence, let me discover the new ways God shows His love for me. This might be through my family or through the caregivers who change my diapers. This relieves me of the pride-monkey that clings to my back. Say, “Thank you”.

Does my life feel meaningless? Our life’s meaning is not just here on Earth but also in the heavenly places. Those who stand and wait can also serve. We don’t have to see meaning in our lives in order for meaning to be. All will be made clear in the World to come. “Then we shall know as we are known.”

Legacy is an opportunity of old age: Yes, we have to bow out, but there’s a generation coming behind us to whom we can pass the torch. What is our testimony to them? What in our life have we learned of the Lord and life with Him that they can learn from us? If our answer is ‘nothing’, then we can make our confession of this to them: Let them learn from our mistake so that they can avoid it. Even at this last chapter of our life, we can repent and ask the Lord even now to teach us, and thereby to give us a word of encouragement for the youngsters.

To conclude, in light of the Resurrection of Jesus, we can pray with the Psalmist confidently; “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.”