Leaning Forward into Late Life

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Missy Buchanan is a writer from North Texas with articles appearing often in the United Methodist Reporter and on Good Morning America’s website.  She’s written several books for senior adults on aging and faith.  Her most recent work My Story, My Song, written with Good Morning America anchor, Robin Roberts, and her mom, Lucimarian comes out this Spring.

Inez is a 99 year-old widow who has severe macular degeneration. She has to move within inches of her large-screen TV to follow her beloved Texas Rangers’ baseball games. Inez also has a serious hearing loss, diabetes, heart issues and painful arthritis. In short, her late years have not been easy.

And yet, there is something about Inez that makes people enjoy being in her presence. From the moment you walk into her institutional room in a small-town nursing home, you are glad you’ve come to visit.

Not long ago I made the 120-mile round trip to visit Inez. She had moved away from the retirement community where I had first met her and into a nursing home near her closest relative, a seventy-nine year-old niece. When Inez moved, she left behind a host of friends she’d made at the retirement center. Starting over in an unfamiliar place must have felt a bit like the first day of school.

Some people would look at the frail older woman’s life and say that she has much to grumble about and little to look forward to. But Inez sees it differently. In fact, she would agree with a spunky 86 year-old woman who once told me that she was frustrated with longtime friends who spent their days sitting around their apartments in their robes watching soap operas. The 86 year-old reprimanded her friends, saying, “You’re dead. You’re just not buried.”

Now don’t get me wrong. Inez is physically unable to go far from her nursing home room. She spends much of her time in a recliner. Even so, she makes a powerful impact on anyone who nears her door. The truth is, Inez is still leaning forward into life.

  • Like Inez, many faithful older adults have learned that leaning forward means not giving up. Being a follower of Christ has no expiration date even for those who are wheelchair-bound. The church needs to remind older adults, including the frail, that they can still influence people around them including caregivers, medical staff, family, friends, and strangers.

Older adults need to understand that people are always watching to see how they are dealing with the challenges of aging. Are they accepting help as their independence wanes? Are they grumpy or grateful? What about their tone of voice? Is it critical or encouraging? One frail woman I visit each week has a wonderful response for anyone who asks how she is doing that day. “I’m fine. God is with me,” she says as she breaks into a huge grin.

It has been said that people of deep faith are more likely to maintain a positive attitude as they age, especially if they stay connected to a community of faith. The church must help older adults embrace their role as influencers in the late years of life. The question the church should be asking is this. How can we make older adults feel relevant when the world tells them they are archaic and unnecessary?

  • Older adults who lean forward in life also know how to laugh, even when times are hard. Many say that humor is God’s salve for the weary soul. It seems especially true for the elderly who are struggling with physical decline.

One older friend started bringing a joke each day to his table at the assisted living center where he lived. He had been concerned that people weren’t talking, and they certainly weren’t laughing. Within a few days, other residents started bringing jokes and funny stories to share, too. Some even asked family and friends to help them gather jokes. Before long, the atmosphere of the dining room had shifted to one of joy and laughter. But it all started with a man who understood the importance of humor. The question the church should be asking is this. How can we help bring joy and laughter to this undervalued segment of the population that is struggling to find purpose?

  • Leaning forward also means finding new ways to serve, no matter the circumstances. As people grow older, they often begin to think that there’s nothing they can do to serve others. They are no longer able to physically do the things they once did, so they shrink back from life-giving experiences. The question the church should be asking is this. How can we help older adults rethink what they can do to serve others?

A 92 year-old woman with severe vision problems knits and crochets by feel rather than sight. Church members keep her well-stocked in knitting supplies. The elderly woman makes a blanket for every infant born or adopted into the church family. She also makes blankets for babies born to mothers at a nearby women’s shelter. Bottom line, the church has helped her find a way to serve others, and in the process, she has rediscovered a purpose.

One sign of a church’s overall health is its effectiveness in helping older adults lean forward into life. Sometimes our churches falsely assume that gray heads indicate a dying congregation. Other churches unintentionally neglect those who have grown old, and they fall into the trap of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But with the silver tsunami well on its way, the church must wake up. If we truly want to follow in Christ’ footsteps, we will come alongside older adults and give them encouragement as they finish the race.

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John Wesley Leek serves the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church as a Commissioned Elder. He is appointed as associate pastor to Natchez, Misssissippi’s Jefferson Street United Methodist Church. Jesus wrecked his life and he likes it. He probably likes you.

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