REFLECTIONS ON AGING

Bodies age, as do many minds, but the spirit endures forever

The reality of getting older is cause for frustration in some, while others view it as a normal part of life. For most, growing old is a paradox of reward and loss.

Individual circumstances contribute greatly to a person’s experience of aging. Those who have fulfilled their goals, realized their dreams, engaged in rewarding work, lovingly supported and been supported by their families, and maintained robust health are understandably more inclined to look gently on what it means to age. For others, growing older is accompanied by economic uncertainty, broken relationships, vocational and other letdowns, and the burden of caretaking parents, partners or dependents who themselves are infirmed or aging.

Media coverage has traditionally fueled the perception of aging as a gradual, inevitable slide into dementia, deafness, blindness, loneliness and loss of personal dignity. The truth of the matter is that our bodies do turn a corner: Denial of the physical changes that accompany aging is no healthier, psychologically speaking, than imposing unfound limitations because “I’m too old for XYZ.” Yet accepting and accommodating the facts is far different than preemptively adopting an attitude of doom and gloom.

I’ve come to believe that society has paid too little attention to life’s predictable stages of development on the continuum’s latter end. Think of how child development, with its markers and milestones, is used to understand children. As Baby Boomers approach normal retirement age, the stages of adulthood are elbowing into the limelight, emboldening many a senior to rethink what’s a given.

In his book Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, James Fowler characterizes early adulthood as a period during which our self-identities develop through relationships to God, to self, in marriage and in teamwork (such as in the workplace). Crises spur us to evaluate the value of these relationships. The degree to which we realistically face crises – by accepting our limitations with grace – is a reflection of our inner depth, at the time.

Middle adulthood brings the psychosocial challenges of career pressure, parenting of adolescents and young adults, caring for aging parents and facing one’s own mortality, among other stressors. We meet these challenges, too, through exploration of our inner strength and hopefully some wisdom. Sometimes we feel we lack the strength to cope with multiple concerns at once. Sometimes we square off with our own limitations for the first time. Always we make a choice in striking a balance with these changing facets of middle adulthood. These decisions have an impact on our ability to adapt in the ensuing years, this stage of life is that on which the elder years are based.

About the time we embrace middle adulthood, along comes the transition to mature age. Maturity is energized by the knowledge that “we have more yesterdays than tomorrows.” Mature individuals feel the urgency of time and may consider what to pass on to the next generation about faith, values, strengths and skills.

Indeed, our memory of all we’ve learned and done is what gives meaning to growing old and becomes our prime contribution to community. None other than St. Augustine argued similarly in the 4th century: “Memory’s huge cavern, with its mysterious, secret and indescribable nooks and crannies, receives all these perceptions, to be recalled when needed and perhaps even reconsidered.” Every one of those perceptions enters into our memory bank, each by its own gate, and is put on deposit there. Mature age, then, is when we make withdrawals from our memory bank, to use as currency to pass along our values and beliefs and wisdom to the next generation.