Leaders, we need to talk about aging.

In 2011 I received a fellowship from the Hartford Foundation to study social work in faith communities with older adults. Two semesters of conversations with colleagues about aging in our current culture, as well as time spent in conversation with the elderly, left a mark on me. As a leader and the only child of aging parents, I want to share some thoughts. Five factors influence my thoughts on aging:


1. Life stage | Integrity vs. despair

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist known for his 8-stage theory of psychosocial development. In each stage, a person experiences a conflict that leads to a turning point in development1. If they successfully resolve the conflict, they move forward with psychological strengths that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. If they do not, they may not develop the skills needed for a strong sense of self.

Erikson called the eighth and final stage of development in a person’s life Integrity vs. Despair. It generally happens in people ages 65 and over2. During this period, people look back on the events of their lives to determine if they are happy with the life they lived or regret things they did or did not do. Older adults need to look back on life and have a sense of fulfillment.

Those who feel that their life was well-lived will experience a sense of integrity and be ready to face the last chapters of their lives with peace3. Those who only feel regret will move toward despair and will fear that their lives will end without accomplishing the things they think they should have4. This sense of despair is often expressed through a general tone of bitterness.

2. The Impact of consumerism on aging adults

We live in an era dominated by the increasingly efficient production and consumption of goods, and this has its consequences. We tend to determine the value of human beings based on their ability to produce or consume the goods and services necessary for society to advance. 

We often claim to view others with unconditional positive regard. But we regularly value others based on what kinds of happiness or personal satisfaction they can produce for us to consume. We tend to shrink back from relationships that no longer fulfill a need for us. When we don’t receive reciprocal benefits, we become tired of putting out the energy needed to care for others.

People have become valuable based solely on their usefulness to those around them and on their ability to produce goods or services for others, or to consume goods or services from others.

Brad Bellomy

3. Consumeristic Christianity 

Western Christianity has widely adopted a consumeristic way of operating. People making critical decisions in the Church often do so under the influence of hours of life at home, school, and the workplace, all of which are saturated with consumeristic ideology.

Capitalist societies rest on the foundations of competition and “the survival of the fittest.” Consequently, it is unlikely that Jesus’ notion of  “the last will being first” and “the first will be last” will become a reality in most cases. The Church has often unintentionally adopted this way of thinking. It is destructive to a person’s ability to see themselves as chosen, blessed, broken, and given children of God, regardless of their social and economic status.  

4. The transition from doing to being.

In a world oriented toward production and consumption, the aging population finds itself in an increasingly hopeless situation. The ability to produce and consume rapidly diminishes; bodies deteriorate; the transition begins from making materialistic contributions to the world to now needing to be cared for by others. The aging can produce and consume less and less. Now, they can only be.

5. The Baby Boomers retired.

We live during a unique moment in history. As the Baby Boomer generation is entering into senior adulthood and living longer, there are record numbers of elderly adults in our families and churches. There are also record numbers of adult sons and daughters who perceive themselves too busy to care for their parents actively.


What does this mean, and why does it matter?

The eighth stage of life brings changes that can dramatically impact a person’s sense of identity. In retirement, the elderly face financial decline. Retirement can also come with a nagging feeling that no longer being a productive member of society’s workforce means losing one’s value in the eyes of society.  Complications intensify with the decline of physical and mental health.

The amount of loss experienced by the aging can be traumatic: the decline of their physical bodies, minds, social networks (as a result of decreased mobility), and even family connections. These changes are often accompanied by a time of great spiritual transition, as physical presence in religious communities declines out of necessity. Uncomfortable voicing their struggle, aging adults often endure these transitions alone.

It’s hard for the rest of us to understand.

It is common for younger- and middle-aged adults to formulate opinions of aging adults that are inaccurate and unfair. We watch them struggle with change, going on and on about how it “used to be.” Sometimes we see the elderly as negative and unhappy. We fail to realize that much of what we observe in the aging emerges from their increasing feelings of detachment and a decreasing sense of value to the world at large. The less a person produces and consumes, the smaller their social circles become, leading to a growing sense of loneliness and isolation.

From time to time, I’ve heard younger- and middle-aged adults say things about older adults, like, “They act like they’re still the ones that pay the bills.” Those kinds of comments expose a troubling reality about how younger generations perceive power and personal value. We employ consumeristic doctrines in how we value our aging brothers and sisters.

Church leaders, in general, tend to plan the communal life of the Church based upon the needs (and often the wants)  of those who regularly attend, pay the bills, and have a voice. Although we must do a much better job reaching the young, I wonder if such increased prominence on the young comes at the expense of the aging.

Those who gave much of their lives to the Church are now in the process of declining. Many are facing mortality in ways the rest of us do not understand. Do we get so busy moving forward that older adults – out of sight, out of mind – are unintentionally marginalized in our thinking and, as a result, from the social life of the Christian community? I believe that does happen to some degree.

More-than-a-few nagging questions:

  • Suppose serving is an integral part of the life of faith. What is it like for the elderly to experience the increasing inability to offer their gifts and abilities in service to the Church? What is it like to know that there’s a workday going on, and you can no longer be there to “produce” and to “do your part”?
  • In a world that links value and success to finances, what is it like for older adults who can no longer financially contribute like they used to? Does it add or subtract to their sense of value as a person?
  • What is it like to spend the entirety of your days sitting in a chair alone in your home, or a nursing home, after years of being with those who not only fulfill you but are fulfilled by your presence and friendship?
  • When you KNOW from your experience that people make time for those they feel are valuable, how does it feel when no one makes time for you any longer?
  • When people who were the caregivers are fast entering a “second childhood” during which they will rely on the care and concern of others, how does one avoid becoming hopeless?
  • What’s it like to know that the community of faith is sharing the meal of the Eucharist at a particular moment, and you can’t even make it to the kitchen to get breakfast?
  • What is it like when your friends and family pass away, and your younger- and middle-aged family is too busy for you? What does it feel like when there is less and less of a “place” for you in the Church?
  • What is it like when you face the inevitable spiritual crisis of aging, with increased experiences of sickness, grief, and loneliness? What do you do when God seems absent, and so does the community of faith? How do you voice the struggle when you grew up in a religious environment that discouraged vulnerability?
  • We speak out vehemently about the sanctity of human life. If that is true, then what rationale could we possibly have for marginalizing older adults in faith communities?
  • Suppose we truly believe that human beings are valuable simply because we are and not because we do. How do we view, appreciate, and involve those who can no longer do, but who can now only be?
  • How can we bless the aging and help them feel that they are most valued during the years when their faith is about to be made sight? How can we help them experience excitement that they will soon know all we have only imagined?
  • The aging finally have the wisdom to shed light on life for the rest of us. How, then, can we create a community where the aging can pass on their knowledge to those who will be coming behind them? How can we listen better?

What now?

To genuinely be a God-bearing community, we must intentionally reach the next generation of youth and young adults. We must also simultaneously create an environment in which aging adults can flourish.  

I don’t know all of the answers to this, but I want you to join me in the conversation. In the Church, we must develop intentional habits and practices that will add value and decrease fear and loneliness in the lives of our older adults. When we do this, I believe we will be surprised at how the aging rise up in support of the Church – even as it adapts and changes to reach a new generation. When we create an atmosphere of value, importance, and community for our aging brothers and sisters, they more readily join the Church in its quest to reach a new generation. 

I will take it one step further. We must help our aging feel increasingly valued and less marginalized and discover new hope and meaning for this chapter of their lives. If we do this, I believe that they will become an even strong(er) voice for the continuation of the Christian faith than we would anticipate. As they heal, they will find their voices in ways we did not expect. 

Here’s where YOU come in.

At the church I lead, we a beginning a journey called Aging with Grace. I am inviting church leaders – and the Body of Christ of all ages – to join me in thinking through these questions:

  • What does the Bible say about aging?
  • What is our role as the Christian brothers and sisters of the aging? 
  • What does a solid, meaningful, and faithful theology of aging look like?
  • How can we effectively bridge the relational gap between generations?
  • How do we enrich the lives of those who can no longer do but can only now be?

References

Cherry, Kendra. (2021, July 18). Understanding Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/erik-eriksons-stages-of-psychosocial-development-2795740.

Erikson E. H . (1982). The life cycle completed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Malone JC, Liu SR, Vaillant GE, Rentz DM, Waldinger RJ. Midlife Eriksonian psychosocial development: Setting the stage for late-life cognitive and emotional healthDev Psychol. 2016;52(3):496-508. doi:10.1037/a0039875

Footnotes

  1. Cherry, 2021, para 6.
  2. Erikson, 1982.
  3. Cherry, 2021 para 45.
  4. Cherry, 2021, para 46.