Pastoral care (10): Aging with dignity and how to succeed at it

Once the pinnacle is reached, everything begins to go downhill. At least that is the picture society throws at us all the time. Callous public advertising is constantly telling us that everything has an expiration date. Thank God that our ministers see things differently. It is not one’s age, but rather one’s essence, that defines a person.

People age. That is simply how life goes. And unless a person dies at an early age, he or she will experience some very different phases of life from childhood to old age, each with its own individual—and yet comparable—stages. Scientists who study the emotional effects of aging use a three-phase model to explain the phenomenon.

The autumn years of life

After what one hopes is a rich and satisfying work life, one will at some point retire. Great news for those who have prepared for it! This first phase frequently begins with the relinquishment of previous activities and obligations. Quite often these were cherished activities, however. After all, work that is enjoyable is not really perceived as a burden at all. And indeed: for some people, retirement, which is actually intended to serve as a relief, looms as a threatening burden. It is not for nothing that aging people are told that they must quite deliberately prepare for their retirement: develop strategies, look for hobbies, make wishes come true, and set goals. Under such favourable circumstances, this liberation from responsibility and stress becomes a joy instead of a burden. The newly gained freedom will thus lead to creative leisure time. Such types of people can be recognised, among other things, by the fact that the perception that they are now counted among the “seniors” does not really register with them.

Settling down

Then comes the second phase: outwardly focused activities, mobility, and social interaction gradually decline. People become calmer, more internally focused, quieter, and unfortunately at times also lonelier. There are more frequent visits to the doctor, and one is more concentrated on coping with daily life. The activities pursued up to now change: long distances become more arduous and are often even avoided, certain activities now require too much effort, and participation in community declines. It becomes difficult to accept that, despite the best of intentions and willingness, many of one’s previous activities are now only possible to a limited degree, or not at all.

The world becomes smaller

“My home is my castle”—In the third phase, the world is often reduced to one’s own apartment or room in a retirement home. Personal contacts have been reduced to a minimum, which may also have to do with the fact that old friends have already passed away. Illnesses and physical constraints are on the increase, freedom of action is limited—frequently all at once—and one becomes dependent on intensive support from others. Soon other thoughts begin to take the upper hand: one becomes more aware of the finite character of life and is increasingly preoccupied with the things that are to come. Family is now in high demand, and the close contact of a caring minister is immensely appreciated. Such a minister becomes more and more important in this border region between life and death as a comforting caregiver who opens up the elderly person’s perspective.

Building on two pillars

In every phase of life—at the very beginning or near the very end—there are two pillars that support the full weight of all interpersonal relationships: appreciation and assistance. Appreciation in particular seems to have gone out of fashion, and yet it is so unassuming, invisible, and non-material in nature. Appreciation does not cost much, often it only takes a few words or a little time for others. Telling another person how important he or she is not only imparts a good feeling, but is also an expression of esteem and acknowledgement. Lay out the red carpet for others and they are guaranteed to invite you to stand on it with them!

Important in the congregation too

We, the congregation, need our elderly members. They are the guardians of our traditions, the guarantors of wisdom and life experience. Failure to make good use of these things would be negligent and foolish. Those who have the future ahead of them need knowledge of the past in order to avoid making the same mistakes as previous generations in the present. Anyone who is interested in fighting for a better world must learn from the mistakes of the past.

On the other hand, the old guard must never pretend to be supreme teachers who—in a manner fully devoid of any self-criticism or insight—think they have done everything perfectly right. What is needed instead is exchange and dialogue: the elderly share their experiences and life wisdom, and in return, receive energy and encouragement from the younger generation. This is certainly more easily said than done, and is already difficult in the circle of one’s own family, let alone within the congregation. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to think about how valuable it is to listen to one another, to talk to one another instead of only about one another. For the congregation that takes this into account, even if only to a limited degree, the Vision of the New Apostolic Church will truly apply: “A church in which people feel at home and, inspired by the Holy Spirit and their love for God, align their lives to the gospel of Jesus Christ and thus prepare themselves for His return and eternal life.”

Photo: Ljupco Smokovski

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Peter Johanning