Transitions of Older Adulthood

October 26th, 2011
This article is featured in the Rites of Passage (Nov/Dec/Jan 2011-12) issue of Circuit Rider

An eighty-four year-old woman watched her children put price tags on her belongings. Her eyes filled with tears as she silently reminisced about the things piled high on makeshift tables in her garage. There was the pink vase that she’d bought with green stamps as a young mother. An out-of-date globe that her children had used in elementary school. Her husband’s old fishing gear and knick-knacks from family vacations over the years. At that moment, she felt exposed, as if intimate parts of her life were about to be paraded in front of total strangers looking for a bargain.

She took a deep breath and reminded herself that she wouldn’t have room for all her belongings in her single room at the assisted living center. Besides, it was good to sort through things while she could still make decisions about what to keep, what to give away, and what to sell. Her children and grandchildren had already taken the few pieces of heirloom furniture and special mementoes that they wanted. But there was still a mountain of stuff. Inwardly, she knew she shouldn’t be concerned with material things, but she couldn’t help but think back to how long she had saved green stamps to get that pink vase. Suddenly she was overcome with emotion. She had never expected to feel so lonely, so afraid, at this stage of life.

In many ways, her golden years didn’t seem so golden after all. Her husband of almost sixty years had passed away last year just as they were getting ready to take a two-week cruise to the Caribbean. Life turned upside down in the blink of an eye. Day after day, she forced herself to keep moving through the fog of grief. He had been her best friend, her traveling companion, her confidant. Now she slept on her side of the bed without even turning back the covers on his.

Then came her stroke. She had gone through four long months of rehab just to regain her ability to walk. Now, she had to make a move since she couldn’t live by herself anymore. Over and over, she kept telling herself that the move was necessary. But nothing had really prepared her for this difficult season of life.

She wondered if she would make friends at the large senior facility. What if she lost her way to the dining room? Where would she sit? It was hard for someone as old as she was to admit, but she felt like a girl on the first day of school.

Across town, an older man grimaced as he dropped into the passenger seat of the car. His arthritis was painful, but not nearly as painful as having to give up the keys to the car. His doctor and family had said that he could no longer drive safely. He had argued with them for months, but finally he relinquished the keys after he’d had a minor accident.

The fender-bender had frightened him. For the first time, he had to admit that his driving could hurt an innocent person. But giving up the car was difficult, especially for a can-do guy who had built a successful business from scratch. 

Gone were the days when he could get into his car and drive to the café on a whim to have coffee and pie with friends. Gone were the days of driving himself to Sunday school or to the cemetery where his wife was buried.  Now he had to depend on his daughter to take him most places, including to the grocery store and the doctor.

It’s true that growing old is not for sissies. The realities of aging can be harsh, which is why church leaders need to fully open their eyes to the situation. There is a fast-growing population of older adults who need to be nourished and encouraged as they face the ever-changing landscape of aging. The thing is, when your eyes are half-closed, it’s easy to dismiss the issues as if they don’t exist.   

Living a long life brings a series of transitions that often include a change in residence, a move to another state, increased medical ailments, physical decline, and the loss of loved ones and independence. An older man who has always been able to fix anything now doesn’t have the strength to change a light bulb above his head. He is both frustrated and humbled. A woman who has cooked countless Thanksgiving dinners fumbles to heat leftovers in the microwave. She feels her purpose slip away with each new day.

A woman who is recently widowed likely faces a series of decisions. Should she move to a senior care facility or stay where she is with occasional care? If she moves, where should she go? Should she move across the nation to be near her only son or should she stay in the community where her friends live? What will happen when she can no longer drive? What should she do with all her belongings?

Though most people don’t like to talk about it, each transition in an older adult’s life is a drain on their self-esteem. With every loss of independence, there is a growing sense of purposelessness. It’s little wonder that many older adults become depressed and simply give up on life. That is why the church must engage older adults who are struggling to find purpose. 

So how can church leaders help older adults transition through the many changes that come with long life?

  • Try standing in their orthopedic shoes. See the world as they see it. Imagine the frustration of impaired vision, poor hearing, diminished strength, and arthritis. Before you criticize them for being stuck in their ways, consider all the changes they have already endured in their lifetime. Think of how fast technology is changing and how out of step they must feel. When you understand why they are afraid or fretting about a situation, you will be far more sensitive to their feelings and better able to encourage them in their journey.
  • Offer seminars and workshops to address issues of an aging population. Help adult sons and daughters learn the eldercare lingo before they are thrust into an emergency situation. What is the difference between continuum care, independent living, and skilled nursing? Will Medicare pay for assisted living? What exactly will home healthcare do? Bring together professionals who can effectively answer questions about these and other topics that are vital to the wellbeing of older adults, including financial, medical, residential, legal, and spiritual issues. Use the event as a way to reach out to the wider community.
  • Track older members and keep in regular contact with them. Involve lay persons in weekly ministry to older adults who are no longer able to attend church. Serve them communion monthly. Remember, too, that older adults want a relationship with the minister. It is important to them that they know the person who will bury them one day. Don’t make a promise to visit then fail to keep the promise. Older adults are devastated when church leaders let them down.
  • Help older adults find purpose in each life transition by showing them how they can still be involved in ministry. Provide homebound members the church’s weekly prayer list and ask them to pray for each person. Invite senior adults to write for Advent and Lenten devotional booklets. Ask a frail older woman to knit baby blankets for the women’s shelter. Invite an older gardener to sell his produce at a church event in support of a mission project. Be creative in helping older adults see how they can still serve others, no matter what their situation.
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