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Aging: consider the alternative.

AGING. It's a subject I approach with caution, because it's almost impossible to talk about aging without putting your foot in your mouth.

Back when I was approaching my 40th birthday, I preached a sermon about aging. During the sermon, I happened to mention that, before too many years, I would be in the category of "middle-aged." After the service, a member of the congregation came up to me and asked, with a sly grin on his face, "How old are you, Ken?" When I told him, he said, "Well, if you don't think you're middle-aged yet, exactly how long are you planning to live?"

Part of the difficulty in talking about aging is language. We don't even know what to call those who reach the upper limits of the lifespan. Not many people like to be called "old." A man in his 70s once told me how much he hated being referred to as a "senior citizen." It's no longer politically correct to talk about people going to an "old folks home." Instead, we say they are residents in a "retirement facility" or, even better, "retirement community."

What word best describes people who are up in years? Golden-agers? The elderly? Retirees? No matter what we use, we are sure to offend someone.

Not long before his death, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies wrote a collection of short stories about aging. In the introduction to the book, he wrote, "I have grown old." He didn't state his age, but he did object to euphemisms for aging. At one point, he said: "Forgive me; I must leave my typewriter to throw up, for I have just heard someone use that nauseating expression `the twilight years.' " The printed page shows a few dashes, presumably to indicate Davies' absence from his typewriter; his next words on the page are, " -- ah, that feels better."

But, maybe, the real question on the subject of aging is not how to talk about it without offending anyone. The real question is, how are we to live as people who are getting older?

The Bible is realistic about aging. Even in biblical times, when old age was honoured more than today, there had to be reminders for people to treat the elderly with respect. One of the commandments in Leviticus reads: "You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God" (19:32).

In the 71st Psalm, the psalmist expresses one of the fears of old age: the fear of being abandoned. This fear is given voice in the ninth verse with a prayer: "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent." The prayer is offered to God, but it could also be a plea offered to members of the community.

Temptation to fall into despair confronts people at every stage of life, but it is especially dangerous in the final years. The writer of Ecclesiastes rebuked those tempted to lament the disappearance of the good old days: "Do not say, `Why were the former days better than these?' For it is not from wisdom that you ask this" (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

My favourite Scripture about aging is a wonderfully upbeat verse in the book of Psalms. The King James Version of Psalm 92:14 has the psalmist describing righteous people with these words: "They shall bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing." That's pretty good, but "fat and flourishing" does have some negative connotations these days. How much better is the New Revised Standard Version! "In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap ..."

Isn't that a wonderful image of what the last years of life can be -- productive, fruitful years? What a terrific way to be described when you're 65, 75, 85 or older -- "always green and full of sap."

In his essay, Robertson Davies argued that the best gift we can carry with us into old age is curiosity. Curiosity about what? It doesn't matter, Davies said: "Curiosity about something. Enthusiasm. Zest. That's what makes old age ... a delight. One has seen so much, and one is eager to see more." The title of his essay, by the way, is "You're Not Getting Older, You're Getting Nosier."

Davies warned that when we cease to be curious, curious even about ourselves, we have abandoned hope. He referred to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung who said the first half of our lives is spent making our place in the world through study, work and family. The second half of life, Jung said, is an inward journey, a spiritual search. It's this search, argued Davies, that makes age not a burden or a defeat, but marvellously enjoyable in spite of the limitations of the aging body.

Much as I like what Davies is getting at here, I believe there is also a subtle danger in his counsel. It suggests that active engagement with the world is pretty much over; what is left is maintenance, reflection and life review. True, the older years are a time of harvest, but they are also a time of planting. Release from full-time employment means opportunity for service to community and church.

A 70-year-old woman, who serves her church in Seattle, Washington, as director of children's ministries, says she has heard people her age say: "I've done my share. Now it's someone else's turn." To which she replies, "Bosh!" She goes on to give examples of older adults who are busily engaged in doing things for others. She writes: "We need to realize, as [older people] ... we have much to offer in new and creative ways of serving our Lord. Look around and see the needs. Be inventive. Ask the Lord where your natural gifts could be a ministry to others. You may find it more rewarding than anything you've done in the past ..."

I like that. I like the fact that someone in her 70s is director of children's ministries. I love seeing older adults reaching out to the children in our church.

Supposedly, it was Maurice Chevalier who said, "Old age is not so bad when you consider the alternative." That was meant to be funny, of course. And one of the saving graces for older adults is a sense of humour. But there's a serious side to that statement. Old age, in its own way, is a unique blessing. Not everyone gets to live to old age. We do well to consider the alternative. And when we have considered it, we do even better to ask God to guide us and bless us in our aging. We can resolve, with God's help, to use our time and energy for the glory of God and for our neighbour's good.

Kenneth Gibble is a free-lance writer living in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Gibble, Kenneth L.
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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