Reflections on Aging Well

Author, Living with Purpose in a Worn-out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room) and Columnist, Aging Well, United Methodist Reporter

Late, great tale of a fortune teller November 23, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — missybu @ 8:08 am

My Uncle Marlin turned 100 years old this weekend. His children and grandchildren hosted a big party at his nursing home. As you would expect, there were balloons and old photographs, cake and punch, and lots of subtle finger-pointing as friends and family tried to figure who was who. My brother and sister traveled from out-of-town to join me in representing our father’s side of the family for the event.

Before the crowds arrived, I had the opportunity to pull a chair up close to my uncle. I asked him if he ever thought he’d live to be 100. A smile stretched across his face as he shook his head no. Then he told me a story.

When he was a young boy, a traveling carnival came to his tiny central Texas town. My uncle said he was fascinated by the fortune teller who lured passersby with promises of revealing how their lives would unfold. He says he couldn’t resist discovering what the fortune teller would say about him. Maybe that he would be a wealthy oil man or perhaps that he would one day own a huge ranch or his own business.

No, the fortune teller told him that he would die at the age of 41.

I laughed and told him I thought we should track down the woman and get his money back. But on the way home, I began to think about what he had said. I wondered if his 41st birthday came with dread and fear instead of celebration. Or if he tip-toed through the year with a caution light flashing constantly. I wondered if he let out a sigh when his 42nd birthday finally arrived.

I don’t know for sure, but somehow I imagine the fortune teller’s prophecy rolled around in the back of my uncle’s mind, even though he is a man of great faith. The episode reminded me of the power of words. How what we say can either encourage or discourage another sojourner.

As we approach Thanksgiving Day, may we each give thanks for older adults, particularly those who are frail and too-often forgotten. May we use words that will encourage them in their journey. Words that will cheer them on to live fully in the promises of God, not of fortune tellers.


No grumpy old men allowed November 16, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — missybu @ 9:45 am

Recently I was in Pennsylvania for a speaking engagement at a large retirement community.  During my 3-day stay,  a staff member took me on a tour of the center.  It is a fabulous facility set on well-manicured acreage.  But the thing that impressed me most was the basement.

Actually, it’s not a basement like you might be imagining.   It was neither dingy nor dark.  There were no dripping pipes… in fact, no visible pipes at all.  As we stepped out of the elevator, I could see that the brightly-lit hall was wide and appeared almost as long as a football field. 

The staff person ushered me through a door to the enormous woodworking shop.  There, I discovered a group of happy men who could have easily passed for gray-headed elves at the North Pole. 

These older men seemed delighted to show me some of their projects.  Several of them were making birdhouses for an upcoming fundraiser.  But soon I discovered what they really wanted me to see was across the hall.  It was their Train Room, an impressive collection of miniature trains. 

One of the men told me that every December, they  bring the elaborate train exhibit to life so that families from all around will come to the senior residence and enjoy the nostalgic experience.  In the woodworking shop, they create tiny towns, crafting every building themselves.  They are forever expanding the landscape with tunnels and bridges, hills and rivers. 

Once the exhibit is open to the public, they really become Santa’s elves.  They quietly solicit the name of every girl and boy from parents, then announce it from a hidden microphone to the amazement of the children!   

As I gazed at the locomotives and the snowy scenes, I could understand the children’s fascination.  Even though the displays were not yet completely set up for the annual event, and the trains were silent, there was magic in the room! 

Over dinner, I asked one of the men why they do it?  Why do they spend hours and hours of their retirement days hunched over tiny Victorian homes, creating intricate details, and repairing hard-to-see train tracks.

 The reason is simple, they tell me.  It feels so good to give yourself away.   

Enough said.


Meeting God in rehab November 9, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — missybu @ 7:31 am

This week when I visited my lively 83-year old aunt in rehab, I was astounded by something she said. Rehab had been an amazing, uplifting experience that had changed her life. Considering how much she had dreaded the rigorous exercises and time spent away from home, I was surprised by her change of heart. But it was not for the reasons you might expect. In fact, it had little to do with mending bones or learning preventative measures to keep her from falling again. She had discovered a new perspective on older adults, which may seem odd considering she is an octogenarian herself.

She told me about another rehab patient, a woman who seemed confused when people tried to talk with her. Usually this woman sat alone in her wheelchair with her shoulders slumped and eyes to the floor. My aunt explained that, prior to her experience in rehab, she would have been afraid to initiate a conversation with anyone in this state. On this day though, she took a risk. She rolled herself over to the woman and commented on her sweater which had red cardinals stitched on it. The woman’s eyes brightened as she lifted her head at my aunt’s mention. Soon the woman was telling a story about how she had been known as the red-bird lady and how she had cared for them at her home. However small, however brief, a connection had been made.

My aunt also told me about a man whose chin sagged to his chest as he sat in a wheelchair in the dining room. She described him as a patient who rarely had visitors and who seemed depressed. Deciding that it would be more comfortable if a male befriended him, she urged another patient, an elderly man, to strike up a conversation with him. Later as she headed back to her room, she got a thumbs-up from the man who had reached out to the first. The next day, she saw them talking again like old friends.

Admittedly, my aunt is likely the most active senior on her floor. When I asked her what caused her to think anew about her more frail counterparts, she graciously credited my book with providing her a better understanding of the inner thoughts of those who are struggling with physical and mental decline. But it was rehab that gave her an up-close, personal view of the realities of aging. And it was God who gave her new purpose.


When church doors close November 1, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — missybu @ 2:30 pm

 A few days ago I went to visit my 83-year old aunt who is in rehab following a fall. When I popped my head in the door, I realized she was already engaged in a serious conversation with a longtime friend from her church. It didn’t take long until I was drawn into their dilemma.

Their small United Methodist church was closing, perhaps merging with a larger church, and they were terribly concerned about what would happen to their Sunday School class of older adults. Interestingly, not all of the older adults had been longtime members of this particular congregation. Several had migrated to this UMC after an emotional upheaval at their former UM congregation about eight miles away. Now my good-natured aunt and her friend were discussing their options. Mostly though, they were heartsick, caught in the middle of yet another disappointing situation.

Their current church is picturesque and quaint, tucked into a quiet neighborhood in large city. Within a two-mile radius, you can find a mixture of million-dollar homes, ranch-style remodels and quirky little bungalows, many set among huge trees and on oversized lots. Even more importantly, there is a blend of young families, retired folks and super-cool urbanites who call this area home.

At first glance, the demographics would seem to support a thriving church. It’s not a dying neighborhood. Yet the church is dying.

It is tempting to vigorously bounce around the how-comes. Was it conflicting tastes in worship styles, a lack of fresh thinking or leadership? I don’t know. But what I do know is that a closure of a church is especially hard on older adults who suddenly find themselves adrift in a sea of uncertainly at a time when their options are decreasing.

For some like my aunt, it is upsetting to think about having to venture farther away from home to attend yet another UMC, especially if it requires navigating highways or unfamiliar roads. Even in merging with another congregation, there are important logistical issues for older adults to consider.

Closing a church’s doors is a dreadful but sometimes-necessary assignment.. I don’t envy anyone involved in making those tough decisions. But I do worry greatly about those, like my aunt and her friend, who are left in the wake. May we all be sensitive to their feelings and needs.