by Lotti Klassen R.N.
“Oh my, you look so young!”
“How to be young forever!”
“You haven’t aged a bit!
Comments like these reflect our society’s value on youth and our negative value on aging. Some cultures actually do value aging and their traditions reflect this. I have a picture in my mind of an elderly person in an airport being greeted by a group of younger adults and children. Each of them respectfully knelt down in front of the elderly person, bowed their heads and waited to be touched on the forehead by the old woman. They hung onto every word she spoke. It was a picture of respect and honour for the aged woman, and it was truly beautiful.
In contrast, I have seen the elderly being ignored and even disrespected in most of our western society. It seems our culture always wants to be younger, rather than older-in looks, in agility, in spirit. But I wonder if we are doing a dis-service to our younger people by placing such a high value on youth. When we tell our young people that they are at “the prime of their life” and we all clamber to “be younger”, does that, in a subtle way, give less hope to our young people? Some of them are still confused about who they are and what they want in life. If this is supposed to be the “prime” and everybody wants to be young, what have the young got to look forward to? It will only go downhill from here! How much better if we put more value on experience, maturity, and aging. How much more encouraging to hear thoughts of “the best is still to come.”
The truth is we are all aging from the day we are born. No one is getting younger. Let’s embrace the aging process. Let’s celebrate each milestone as much as we can. As we age, we can gain experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Yes, our bodies aren’t meant to last forever. Our bones deteriorate; skin sags and wrinkles; muscles waste away; aches and pains can increase with advancing age. But our spirits and our inner being and character can remain strong and be renewed day by day.
My interest in the elderly began at an early age. My grandmother lived with our family all my life until she passed away when I was 19. I also had the joy of being the main caregiver for my mother in her last decade of life. As a nurse I have spent three decades working in geriatrics in various settings. I have to say I truly love old people. There is such a wealth of life experiences and wisdom to be observed; there is so much patience and character that can be developed. I can learn so much from my elders and be inspired by them.
I have observed the deep commitments of a lifetime in marriages and families, through good times and tough times. I’ve seen a husband faithfully visiting his wife every day, tending to her needs and then kissing and hugging her tenderly and passionately, like a teenager “madly in love.” Such is true lasting love.
I have had the privilege of seeing families come together, supporting their elderly parent at great sacrifice of their own time and livelihood. I’ve seen them visit, laugh, pray and sing with them, hold their hand, and recall memories of the early years. I have listened as they patiently explain where they are and who they are and answer the same questions over and over, to a parent who no longer remembers.
I have stood on “holy ground” at death-beds and watched from the side-lines as people have passed from this life to the next. Each one is a precious experience. What an awesome privilege!
I have been moved to tears as I have seen an old crippled lady kneel at her bedside to pray. (I admit that my first reaction was alarm, as I thought that she had fallen and couldn’t get up by herself. It was only when I approached her that I heard her softly praying aloud.)
I have been inspired as I have seen lifetime habits come to fruition in old age: attitudes of gratitude, contentment, and grace. How humbling it is, and what a joy it is to serve these people.
Oh yes, I have also seen other lifetime habits play out in old age; habits of complaining, demanding, grumbling, inflexibility, obsessive behaviors, and focusing on what other people think rather than on what God thinks. I have learned not to be surprised when I see a “sandbox fight” play out in retirement homes. Yes, it sometimes seems like a complete regression to the preschool and schoolyard fights when old people get annoyed with one another and their “social filters” aren’t working any more. Unresolved conflicts or old habits that were buried can somehow come to life in old age! Even tattling, whining, jealousy, rivalry, and complaining!
Conversations with the elderly can sometimes deteriorate to becoming an “organ recital”; just reciting over and over about all the body functions that are failing. “My arthritis is so bad”; “I can hardly hear”; “my eyesight is failing” and “the Dr. said my heart is weak” and on and on…you know the tune. They can even play “one-up-man-ship” on each other’s ailments.
How much more interesting it is to talk to an elderly person who has maintained his sense of humour, and somehow manages to focus on gratitude and on others and their interests. This needs to be developed and maintained earlier in life.
I have learned that a “sweet old lady” doesn’t become “sweet” automatically just because she’s old! A “sweet old lady” is more likely to have been in the making for many years; someone who has learned to forgive, has practised being grateful, has learned the art of encouragement, and is ever being mindful of others; it’s not “all about me”.
Working in geriatrics has also given me the opportunity to see many different families in action. I have been inspired by the commitment of children and grandchildren to their parents and grandparents. I see daughters and sons faithfully remain in touch with their parents, through very tough situations. Maybe dad doesn’t even recognize his children, but they don’t stop coming to see him. Even though dad doesn’t know them by name, or even acknowledge their presence, his emotions and senses are still intact and he still somehow senses their presence and love.
At this last fragile stage of life when elderly parents need feeding, changing, and are dependent on others for all the basic activities of living I see parallels of a mother and her baby. Does a mother stop talking to her baby, or coming to check on him regularly, or feeding her baby and cuddling him and changing him just because he doesn’t talk to her or remember when she was there last? Of course not! And so, families come faithfully to visit, hold hands and re-assure their elderly fragile parents in their sunset years. That inspires me.
I am encouraged by Bible passages like “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken” (Ps. 37:25), and “Let my mouth be filled with Thy praise and with Thy honour all the day long. Cast me not off in the time of old age, forsake me not when my strength faileth.” (Ps. 71:8-9) Aging can be a time in our lives marked by faith, hope, and love.
Lottie is a Registered Nurse (not quite retired) in her seventh decade of life. She’s been a nurse for over 40 years. She’s been happily married to her husband Dick for nearly four decades and has two adult daughters. Her volunteer involvements include serving on the missions committee, women’s ministries, seniors JOY dinners (Just Older Youth), board member of seniors housing, and community outreach work with the poor and homeless in our community. Lottie and Dick love riding their ATV’s and especially enjoy taking other people’s grandchildren on these outings, since they have none of their own.