Grey Panthers, God and the good life

Sissies and wimps had best not to apply,
warns Susan Wills. Then again, adventure,
courage and heroism mark the lives
of some retirees, and several
Presbyterian organizations and
networks are supporting and
promoting spiritual vitality,
emotional health and physical
vigor. This special Outlook
retirement section joins in
the equipping effort.

Growing old in a society that idealizes youth is emotionally challenging. While some older people have enough self-esteem to withstand constant reminders that young is preferable to old, others don’t handle it so well. The statistics on depression among the elderly are alarming. Recent studies have indicated that 10 to 25 percent of us will be clinically depressed in our elder years. The causes of depression in the aging is the primary challenge of social gerontology, which also offers exciting possibilities for growth and transformation in what Carl Jung called “the afternoon” of our lives.

In the 1960s Maggie Kuhn and the Grey Panthers assailed the image of aging people as irrelevant and uninteresting and marshaled their gifts toward a powerful force for social justice. Her contribution should be of special interest to Presbyterians; her speech at the 181st General Assembly is considered to be the first salvo that launched her vision. The videotaped speech was featured on the local news channel and struck a nerve in the popular culture, spreading like wildfire throughout the media networks. It all started when she was forced into retirement from a job she loved. She convened meetings with others in similar circumstances and formed an advocacy group that today continues her charge to eliminate ageism through an intergenerational coalition for social change.

Today, the zeal to overturn negative stereotypes of aging has produced media images (especially ads by financial institutions) that present retirement as years of active, healthy independence, an extended middle-age without the constraints of careers and raising families. This “vacation model” of retirement has several problems. First, it puts to pasture huge resources of wisdom and experience that could be applied toward world benefit. Secondly, it assumes that older people don’t do anything worth noting in their obituaries. Most tragically, it sets unrealistic expectations that make fertile ground for the roots of depression.

“The afternoon of life” has been the subject of ancient religious and folk traditions. Social gerontology is a modern expression of these traditions merged with medicine and psychology to produce several diverse and often contradictory theories on the process of aging. Activity theory describes healthy aging as staying busy and looking young, while disengagement theory sees the elderly letting go of social roles and appearances, seeking inner peace and embracing “being” rather than “doing.” Neither theory explains why some older people thrive on lots of activity, some are active but unhappy, some are satisfied to just sit and reminisce, and still others sink into angry or melancholy withdrawal.

Continuity theory takes the middle position that developmental crises encountered in earlier life determine our dispositions as elders; that is, “with age we become more of what we already were when younger.” On the other hand, longitudinal studies contain profiles of many emotionally healthy elderly shedding their mid-life roles and exploring new paths. Successful adaptation to old age is further complicated by voluntary and involuntary separation from mainstream society, creating an aging subculture where cohorts (people born in the same time period) share a world-view that is different from younger generations’. For some, separation is marginalization; for others, it becomes a base for support and political power.

Regardless of their many differences, these models provide a rich foundation for exploring the spiritual dimension of aging. Studies on the interaction of religion, spirituality and aging show that adjustment to the losses of aging and death has been effective in people who transcend their situations through their religious faith. Ritual, fellowship, prayer, music and Scripture are mechanisms for coping with life’s challenges when science and medicine have nothing left to offer. They sustain many people through suffering and loss and transform such experiences into hope for renewed strength to face another day. Yet some people find little use for religion, including many elderly. More recent studies are focused on how or even if religious belief helps or hinders healthy aging. Although science can’t prove or disprove religious belief, new data and observations reveal what kinds of religious approaches are most helpful to those who are open to them.

The spirituality of aging takes a different perspective from that of medicine or sociology. Rather than a problem calling for a solution, spiritual aging is a journey beginning in childhood and passing through stages that transform a person’s role and concept of self. Consider, for example, the Hindu four-stage cycle that prescribes both religious and social roles of a person’s life: student, householder, retired person, and ascetic. In retirement, one surrenders the household to the next generation and turns attention toward contemplation of death and rebirth. For most Hindi, this is the final stage, but a few become ascetics, rejecting all worldly possessions and pursuits, including formal religion, to seek union with Brahman (the absolute being we call God).

This process has defined Hindu life for thousands of years and has interesting parallels with psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight life stages. In the final stage, having survived struggles with trust, autonomy, intimacy, work, family, society, fortune and misfortune, a person is faced with the final conflict between integrity and despair; victory of the former leads to acceptance of the past, of the latter to contempt and depression. A successful orientation in the eighth stage allows one to transcend life’s limitations and, like the Hindu elder, turn instead toward what Paul Tillich calls “ultimate concern.” Many geriatric psychologists use this model with a method known as “life-review” to approach the question, “What, actually, has been the meaning of my life?” When this question comes up in the earlier stages we call it a mid-life crisis and confront the issue with our mental and physical resources in peak condition. When loss of meaning threatens the final stage of life, mind and body are breaking down in front of a finite window of opportunity to recover integrity.

Christianity has less to say about old age compared to other religions. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner thinks this avoidance comes from repressing the sense of the divine that is both feared and yearned for. Integrity will come through surrender to the divine mystery and openness to God’s grace. But for many, surrender is not an appealing sentiment; separated from faith, too often it is identified with resignation and defeat. Physician and theologian Paul Tournier devotes the largest chapter of “Learn to Grow Old” to the topic of acceptance. Growing old is attended by the gradual realization that our work, our purpose and our dreams will be only partially fulfilled, invoking Jesus’ question, “why has God forsaken me?” The answer “not my will, but thine be done” is hard to accept when science and medicine seem increasingly capable of subduing the forces of sickness and death. A retreat into mystical detachment may not be helpful for the modern, Western disposition that finds nearly all meaning and purpose in this world. Steve Eason, pastor of Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., preaches from the Gospel of Luke to aging baby boomers, a generation convinced that it’s possible to have everything we want. Like the rich young ruler who hoped to “add eternal life to his portfolio,” we are not willing to pay the price. Eason advises us to look instead at Joseph of Arimathea, who was also rich but parted with something of great material and symbolic value (his own tomb) for the honor of his relationship with the savior of the world.

Two major social changes are under way: how society perceives the aging and how the aging perceive themselves. Through her example, Maggie Kuhn proved that older people can stay involved, use their gifts of wisdom, reach out to each other and future generations, and most importantly, find meaning and joy in their aging. Virtually all self-help literature tells us that peace and happiness can be found by helping others.

The church can bring together a huge pool of able-old volunteers to care for their frail contemporaries. Congregations and denominational organizations are creating alternatives for retirement living, embracing a new model that encourages world service and spiritual growth. Partnerships among churches and social service agencies can recruit able senior volunteers to visit, assist and run programs for the disabled and home-bound. The church can also provide proactive guidance for elders to plan for their aging and avail themselves of legal and social resources. This is being accomplished effectively in a Westchester County, N.Y., community “aging-in-place” initiative where seniors coordinate resources for each other so they can live in their homes and access transportation, medical services, merchandise discounts, deliveries and education programs (see This would make a terrific church ministry.

Church leaders can begin today to enrich pastoral care and worship to meet the unique spiritual needs of the elderly and encourage their contributions to the well-being of one another, their church and community, and the whole of society. The great wisdom traditions give elders the role (indeed, the obligation) of guiding succeeding generations. Erikson, in a later writing, considered adding a ninth stage in which generativity (concern for future generations) characterizes the end of life: “One cares for what one has generated in this existence while simultaneously pre-experiencing the end of it all in death.” For the Christian, this is the resurrection revealed, where death is the end of fear and despair. Jesus loved, suffered, died and rose again to declare that death is not a defeat but a victory. The one who believes has already passed from death into life (John 5:24), can live fully and abundantly in the present and share the gifts of age with all generations.

SUSAN WILLS is an MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, after having retired from a career at Xerox Corp. She is a CPE resident chaplain at Self Regional Healthcare Center in Greenwood, S.C., and has served as a volunteer in hospice and skilled nursing facilities in Charlotte, N.C. and Sarasota, Fla.

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