Aging Well: Valuing seniors as a counter-cultural act of love

AgingWell

A few years ago I was having coffee and casual conversation with the marketing director of a large retirement community that has both independent and assisted living facilities on its well-manicured campus. She was a vivacious forty-something woman who was struggling to meet her quarterly sales quota. In a moment of frustration, she blurted out her concern about attracting active older adults to her community.

“I think the biggest obstacle for potential clients is the number of walkers and canes they see when they come for a visit. No one wants to be reminded that they might end up like that,” she complained. “I wish we didn’t have so many residents who use walkers. It’s such a turn-off,” she said matter-of-factly.

I gulped and felt my stomach do a flip-flop. I couldn’t help but think that her attitude has been birthed in our culture’s perception of aging— that growing older is something to be shunned.

Now don’t get me wrong. This young woman must have felt great pressure to market her senior living community to active older adults who imagine themselves ballroom dancing and taking cruises to the Caribbean, not shuffling along or stooping. But her comment and tone highlight the dilemma faced by many seniors— that they are somehow to blame for their own physical decline. That they should be hidden away so they don’t make others uncomfortable.

As I travel across the country to speak at retirement communities and churches, I see this conflict played out again and again. Many seniors tell me that they are tired of people trying to convince them that age is only a number and that growing old is all fun and games.

“We are not stupid,” one eighty-three year-old woman told me. “I wish people wouldn’t treat us as though we are so naïve as to believe we will never decline physically. Though none of us want that to happen, most of us are already experiencing it to some degree or another. What we really want is the assurance that we will still be valued no matter our circumstances.”

It got me thinking about something I read in the social media not long ago. An associate minister voiced his concern about the number of walkers in the narthex of his church on Sunday morning. It seemed the problem wasn’t a matter of space or storage. To him, the line of walkers was a big negative to young families who were visiting the church.  He said the image gave the impression that it is an old and dying church.

So what’s a church to do?

I am concerned that the church may be falling prey to a culture that will do almost anything to deny the realities of aging.  Shouldn’t the church, of all places, be a counter-cultural influence, demonstrating God’s perspective on aging? Instead of viewing that line of walkers as a symbol of decline and death, shouldn’t we be helping others recognize the perseverance and faithfulness of older generations? Shouldn’t we be showing visitors that a vibrant, healthy church embraces and values people of all ages?

One Sunday morning a few months ago, I got misty-eyed as I watched an acolyte retrieve an older woman’s walker from where it was stored in the narthex. Usually a church member or an usher roll it to her, but on this Sunday morning as we sang the last verse of the congregational hymn, the young acolyte carefully pushed it down the aisle to where older woman was sitting. I watched as she looked up at the youngster, smiled and gently patted his hand.

I am confident that my minister preached a great sermon that morning, but to be honest, I don’t recall the message. What I do remember is the grin on that acolyte’s face as he returned to the narthex.

Missy Buchanan, UMR Columnist

Missy Buchanan is a sought-after speaker on topics of older adult ministry and spiritual creativity, she brings passion and humor to many events for churches, organizations, and women’s groups. She has appeared on Good Morning America with co-host Robin Roberts and is the author of books including Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults, Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms, and Don’t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults. She has written for many publications including Presbyterians Today, Mature Years, Christian Association Serving Adults Ministries, Entrepreneur, and The Dallas Morning News.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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