When I was very young, maybe five, I visited my great-grandmother. She was crippled with arthritis and bed-ridden and she scared the crap out of me. She said, “come here let me squeeze the puddin’ out of ya'” and I thought she really could squeeze the life out of me. Of course, I know better now, but that doesn’t change the fact that my only living memory of a woman I would later love and respect is one of fear and retreat.
When I was a little older, I used to visit nursing homes with my parents. We would sing old hymns and dad would preach a short sermon. Then we would visit the rooms and pray with anyone that needed it. I remember the people would smile and mumble along to the familiar tunes. They were especially happy to see young people and stared at my sister and me as if they could drink in our youth through exposure. I remember they smelled like moth balls and looked a little frightening with their sagging jaws and skin.
When I became an adult, I volunteered at a nursing home to help teach a lady to paint. I went into her room and talked to her about her life and shared with her some fun techniques to try with her art. I got to know her and some of her life story. She didn’t seem old or scary, she was experienced and interesting with a strong, healthy mind. I thought of her as a friend. One day she had bad headaches and couldn’t see me. One day turned into two. Another day she was fine and happy to talk again, but she told me she didn’t want me to “waste my time” coming out there. I got busy and stopped coming for a while. The next I heard, she was dead and gone. I never got to say goodbye.
I think humans are funny about age. When we are born, we think it is adorable when babies are covered in drool, spilling their food, and making messes. We have compassion for their short-comings and reward every small gain they have because it is progress. But when all these things happen with an adult, we treat them with fear and disdain. We invest in plastic surgery, exotic pills, and drastic health care programs to try to stave off getting older. Nothing stops the inevitable.
It’s one thing to deal with the effects of aging personally, but what about when our parents are getting older?
My pastor, Andrew Price, says there are four stages that aging parents go through.
- First, they become grandparents and enjoy being able to invest in their kids’ kids without all the hard work of day-to-day parenting.
- Second, they become retirees and get to reap the rewards of hard work and investments. They have time to relax, travel, and enjoy life. They make great mentors for others at this stage.
- Thirdly, they realize they can’t do all they used to do and they have to start relying on their kids to do some things for them. During this role-reversal stage, parents worry about having enough insurance and money to cover their needs and children struggle to care for their parents without treating them like children.
- Fourth, they become completely dependent on others for their care. In this stage, parents are no longer able to care for themselves, so the kids have to arrange for care for them. This can become a financial and emotional burden for everyone.
Children’s children are a crown to the aged,
and parents are the pride of their children. Proverbs 17:6, NIV
There is a lot of joy for stages one and two here, but I feel a deep sadness for stages three and four. Some may say it is because dealing with aging parents reminds us of our own mortality, but for me, it is more personal than that. My parents are my heroes; I’ve always looked up to them. They are barely into their sixties, yet I am living through part of these later stages with them now because of their health.
It is hard to see your heroes get knocked down.
It is hard to see them depend on people for their basic care. It is infuriating when those people also don’t care about doing their jobs well...if at all. Strangers will never know the value of your loved ones or care to know their story the way you do.
What is also hard about stages three and four is realizing that the person you love may not be with you much longer. You’ve gotten used to life with them in it. Now you feel cheated to think they won’t be there for the rest of it. At some point, whether you want to or not, we all have to say goodbye and try to live without our loved ones. It’s not easy.
I’ve had to say goodbye to more loved ones than I care to think about, and I have never been good at it. I’ve realized that I have a lot to learn from old people, even the mean, and scary ones.
Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Psalms 90:10 NIV
Some Lessons I’ve Learned From Older People
First, take care of your health. The stuff you put off when you are young catches up to you when you are old. It pays back with interest…negatively.
Second, spend quality time with the people you care about. If you didn’t care to get off your phone and play with them when they were young, why should they care about taking time out of their busy lives to visit you when you are old?
Third, be encouraging to your children. No child deserves to be put down by their parents. If you can’t be nice to them and encourage them into being a better person, you probably shouldn’t have been a parent at all. Don’t be surprised when no one comes to your funeral.
Fourth, plan ahead. Save what you can save. Invest what you can invest. Life costs more when you are older.
Fifth, don’t live with comparisons and regrets. You can control your choices but you can’t control them for someone else. You gain nothing from holding back on your dreams and goals or comparing what you have to what others have. At the end of the day, Facebook lies, Twitter glimpses, and Instagram only shows the cropped shots. If you get too caught up in what others have, you will end up scared and wasteful with what you do have.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot… What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time.
He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear (revere) him.
–Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, NIV