“You’re not old, grandma, not really old!” One woman’s five-year-old granddaughter comforted her about turning 65 and, holding her face in her hands, assured her that she really was still a valuable person. Getting old is a problem if even little children don’t want you to become an old person. Why? Where does a little child get the idea that old is bad?
Today when our youth oriented society hears “old,” they immediately conjure up images of incontinence and vacant-eyed Alzheimer’s patients. It seems that most everyone in this country associates getting old with bad things: poor health, deteriorating appearance, being dependent on others, and even irrelevance. “In the workplace, if you reach a certain age, you’re getting a message that you really should get out of the way, make room for younger people, and at the same time, getting a message that you’re a burden on society if you do.” It is almost to the point that to refer to someone as “old” is offensive. And we do not like to talk about dying. But that’s another blog.
Did you ever think about being old when you were young? I never did. That happened to someone else, like my parents. Mostly I never even thought about it. It was at my fiftieth birthday party that the “old” jokes started coming out. We all laughed when somebody gave me an application for AARP. It was hilarious that I was given a cane with a horn on it. Other gifts were a magnifying glass, a nose hair trimmer, a couple of quarts of prune juice, and a box of Depends. This was all good-natured fun and we loved it.
But now–suddenly, (if you can call two decades “suddenly”)—here I am, almost 72. Now, don’t immediately jump to my defense and say, “That’s not old!” It’s okay. However, my body and mind are undergoing something big, and I want to talk about it.
I have found myself woefully unaware of the profound effects aging can have. On top of that, I am surprised about how intensely these changes affect me when I thought it would be “no big deal.” And, if I fulfill my parents’ genetic legacy, I’m just a novice at aging with decades still to go.
Growing old: the bad news.
Aging changes your body, like it or not.
I used to think, when looking at my parents, “Why do they look so sad all of the time?” Now I see those same expressions on my face! It was not sadness, disapproval, or anger. It was gravity! We praise those who, like actress Cicely Tyson, are still starring in Broadway shows at 90, but the truth is most of us will not be this vigorous at 90, even if we exercise, eat right, and keep a great attitude. Our bodies wear out, period. We wear out at different rates and from different things, but we do wear out. Genetics deals each of us a different hand when it comes to aging. I hope that you’re in the majority of the population who do not have arthritis. However, neither Karon nor I can wear the shoes we used to because our feet hurt too much. Your hair may be white but your face is still smooth. My hair may still be mostly brown, but my face looks like a road map.
We find our list of doctors growing to include urologists, ophthalmologists, cardiologists, rheumatologists, and, for some, oncologists. Our shopping trips now take us to aisles at Walmart we never expected to be in. We look around, embarrassed, when we select Depends Shields, “for drips and dribbles.” (I can imagine the young graphic artist who designed this package rolling his eyes. He never imagines that he, too, will need such things.) We ask people to speak to our left side because that’s our good ear. And why does everyone mumble these days?
The Mayo Clinic suggests that we can expect these changes as we grow older: your cardiovascular system, your bones, joints, and muscles, your digestive system, your bladder and urinary tract, and your memory.
Aging can change your mind, like it or not.
Most of us older people have moments when we can’t remember where they put our keys or forget or confuse people’s names. Like the two couples below…
Two elderly couples were enjoying friendly conversation when one of the men asked the other, “Fred, how was the memory clinic you went to last month?”
“Outstanding,” Fred replied. “They taught us all the latest psychological techniques, like visualization, association, and so on. It was great. I haven’t had a problem since.”
“Sounds like something I could use. What was the name of the clinic?”
Fred went blank. He thought and thought, but couldn’t remember. Then a smile broke across his face and he asked, “What do you call that flower with the long stem and thorns?”
“You mean a rose?”
“Yes, that’s it!”
He turned to his wife, “Hey Rose, what was the name of that memory clinic?”
Some normal, mild memory loss comes to almost all of us with aging, but many will face more serious cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer’s. (My mother died of Alzheimer’s.)
Aging robs us of family, friends, and independence.
According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 800,000 people in the US are widowed each year. 87% of those are women. Loss of a spouse is ranked as the number one stressor. 60% of these widowed (men and women) will experience a serious illness such as cancer, shingles, or heart disease in the twelve months following that loss. In addition to this there is an increased likelihood that a recently widowed person will die (between 30% – 90% in the first three months and around 15% in the months thereafter). This is one of the best documented examples of the effect of social relations on health.
The loss of independence is extremely difficult. I remember someone called me after church one Sunday and said, “Dave, I followed your parents home from church today and your Dad was all over the road.” Not only that, but he was parking half on and half off the curb. More frightening was the thought of the accidents that might happen. We finally had to insist that my Dad relinquish his driver’s license.
As he entered the nineties, my Dad struggled with a deep sense of irrelevance. Not only was his car gone, but so were his study and woodworking shop, two places that defined him. Then his mind began to fail, as did his ready wit. When I look in the mirror I see my Dad’s wrinkled face looking back at me. I am trying to prepare myself for these contingencies.
Age can diminish spiritual vitality.
The Bible talks a lot about age and offers many examples of people who maintained or lost spiritual vigor. Notable is King Solomon: “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been” (1 Kings 11:4 (NIV).
Dan Davis, a Lifeway author, writes: “Notice how this verse does not begin. It does not begin ‘When Solomon was young and imploring the Lord for wisdom’ or ‘When Solomon had just completed building the temple….No, it begins ‘When Solomon was old.’”
Worldliness, you see, creeps in slowly….it sits down and talks like a friend. Worldliness does not, at first, talk to you about bad things. It just talks to you about…things. Before long trivia fills your mind. Television programs, games, and doctors’ appointments become the focus of your days. And slowly, the eyes of your heart become heavy, start to close, and eventually you fall asleep. You stop reading the Bible, stop praying, and stop thinking about God. And that was Solomon’s undoing. Solomon was still smart, but he lost his focus and abandoned his first love.
Constructive responses to growing old.
Even in the face of such daunting statistics, we can face the future with hope and joy. David Roper in Our Daily Bread  observes, “Old age does not have to focus on declining health, pining over what once was. It can also be full of tranquility and mirth and courage and kindness, the fruit of those who have grown old with God.”
The human spirit can transcend difficulty.
I am blessed with stellar examples of this upbeat and give confidant attitude. My Mom used to say that “old” was one decade beyond wherever she was. She meant by this that she would not let a fatalistic and downcast mindset overtake her.( You can read her story here: That was then. This is now.)
My mother-in-law, Flo Neal, became noticeably more vibrant in her eighties. She refused to allow pain or handicaps to limit her. In fact, we didn’t know almost until her death that she had terrible pain in her legs from peripheral arterial disease. Until the day she died, at 86, she disciplined herself to reach out to her neighbors and friends, many of whom still testify to her dynamic spiritual impact.
This body is just our temporary home. Our spirits are eternal.
Paul’s illuminating words underscore this essential truth. “God, who first ordered ‘light to shine in darkness’, has flooded our hearts with his light….This priceless treasure we hold, so to speak, in a common earthenware jar—to show that the splendid power of it belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:6-7, J.B. Phillips). We must remember every morning that our fragile and transient bodies are but a short-lived residence for our spirits, which are unconquerable!
David Roper, who I quoted above, must use a walker because of peripheral neuropathy. “I’m trying to learn, however, that my limitation, whatever it may be, is a gift from God, and it is with this gift that I am to serve Him….Seeing our so-called liabilities this way enables us to go about our business with confidence and courage. Rather than complain, feel sorry for ourselves, or opt out, we make ourselves available to God for His intended purposes”
Being active can vastly improve the years we do have.
Medical science continues to discover how vitally important exercise is for the human body, no matter how old you are. Helen Flynt, my adopted mother, now in her mid-nineties, still walks three miles a day, a longstanding practice that surely contributes to her energetic schedule. In a recent email, she told me that, “I try to limit activities to two a day, if possible” (in addition to walking, of course). She also attends special events, such as a Regional minister’s meeting, a three-day affair in Portland (she lives in Seattle), a Mariner’s baseball game, and regularly is involved in weekly church functions and monthly interest groups, such as Quilter’s Anonymous. Until a year or so ago she also was in the Senior Swingers Orchestra that performed several concerts a year, but she dropped out because “it was taking too much time for rehearsals and programs.” I am exhausted just contemplating this schedule.
Obviously, Helen’s energetic lifestyle is beyond many of us, but we all can exercise, even if it’s only walking regularly. Karon and I play tennis three times a week. Don’t imagine us leaping across the courts with tanned and muscular bodies. No, but we do play doubles with other seniors, a great way to enjoy the sport when your joints complain. Most in our group are old hands at joint replacements, cataract surgeries, and back surgeries like mine. As beneficial as the exercise is the hour and a half we spend laughing three times a week. The point is to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Move, move, move. Your body is built for exercise.
Our spiritual life is capable of endless growth and enrichment!
Even as our bodies weaken, our spirits can blossom as never before. I love this promise from Psalm 92:12-15
But the godly will flourish like palm trees
and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.
For they are transplanted to the Lord’s own house.
They flourish in the courts of our God.
Even in old age they will still produce fruit;
they will remain vital and green.
They will declare, “The Lord is just!
He is my rock!
There is no evil in him!”
Many of us are still busy with activities, travel, and hobbies. Even in retirement it is easy to let time for Bible reading and prayer slip away. How tragic if now, with flexible schedules, we slide God and His Word to the back burner. This is why illnesses, pain, and difficulties can be our friends, because they make us realize our need for constant connection with God.
Arlyne Wells was in a dreadful automobile accident twenty-four hours after her high school graduation in 1989. Left a quadriplegic for the past twenty-seven years, she exudes an outgoing positive attitude and daily uses her Facebook page to post uplifting and positive scriptures and quotations. She has a great sense of humor. She surely faces constant and enormous physical and emotional challenges, disappointments, and pain, yet she chooses to invest her time by cultivating her relationship to God and encouraging others. This focus allows her to keep upbeat and optimistic rather than allow her handicaps to defeat and discourage her. Arlyne is not old but she is facing many challenges typical of old age. She is doing it with grace and a growing spiritual vitality born of her strong will and intention to help others. I want to do this.
 See the full article here http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/healthy-aging/in-depth/aging/art-20046070 This article also suggests the best ways to stay as healthy as possible.
 “ Red Hackle,” Our Daily Bread, September, October, November 2016, November 27, Our Daily Bread Ministries, PO Box 2222, Grand Rapids, MI 49501-2222
 Ibid. “This Gift.”