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AGING WELL: Finding hope amid the reality of aging Missy Buchanan, Apr 1, 2009
By Missy Buchanan Special Contributor
On most Sunday mornings, I stick my head in the doorway of the senior adult Sunday school class at my church. I’ve known most of the members for almost three decades. Long enough to know that they start class on time with a rousing hymn from the Cokesbury hymnal.
I also know that these older folks study their lessons. Five class members share teaching responsibilities, rotating Sundays like clockwork. The fourth-Sunday teacher always begins his lesson with an endearing announcement: “There’s no where else I’d rather be at this very moment than right here with this class.”
I usually find these older adults sitting in the same seats each week. They collect offerings in a wooden box handcrafted by a member years ago. They also have an annual accounting of class finances that is printed and shared among members.
But lest you think these older folks are too rigid, let me assure you that they know how to have a good time. They are quick-witted and love to share jokes, especially those passed along by members who have mastered e-mail and Google. They also have a long history of lively fellowship dinners and fish fries. Even senior adults who have only recently joined their ranks confirm that they were warmly embraced.
Though many things have remained the same for this group, there has been great change. During the last few years, their numbers have dwindled as beloved members have died. Recently they’ve begun to tease each other about the danger of moving to the front row, where a few seats have been left vacant by members who have passed on to glory.
Their movement, too, has slowed. Almost all have painful joints. Three members now use walkers to help with mobility; another uses a cane.
Not long ago, one woman sold her home and moved to an assisted-living center across town. Now she only comes on rare occasions, when a family member can bring her. Another widow made the decision to sell her home and move to another city to be close to her son. Others are struggling with the idea of giving up the keys to the car. They wrestle with issues of safety and the loss of independence.
During the last few years, almost all of these older adults have had some sort of health crisis. Several have been hospitalized; one was in rehab for seven months. Another has assumed all cooking duties since his wife was diagnosed with a form of dementia.
The challenges of this class are not unique. I’m guessing that almost every United Methodist church has a similar group. Faithful, older disciples whose bodies are wearing out.
Not long ago, an editor interviewed me about my book, Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room Books). He admitted he was taken back by the straightforward nature of the title. He thought older readers would not want to be reminded of the downside of growing old.
I smiled to myself because I had grappled with the same thought before naming the book. He went on to say that he had changed his mind after visiting an elderly aunt. He had not seen her for several years and was surprised by her decline. Later, he admitted that he’d been guilty of thinking that if older folks just had the right mindset, they could all be active like the tap-dancing grannies you see at local parades. Listening to his frail aunt, he suddenly realized the importance of honoring her reality.
Though some older adults are blessed to be active well into their nineties, most experience substantial physical or mental decline. Typically it’s us younger folks who don’t want to think or talk about it.
On tough days, even the faithful seniors of my church struggle to find purpose. It makes me wonder how the church will respond to the fast-growing population of older adults. What about seniors in the community who are grappling with spiritual questions but have no church home? How will the church help families deal with complex issues of aging family members?