Sermon: Successful Aging (text & audio)

The journey of aging begins at the moment of conception, so we all have expertise on the subject. I’ve asked some middle-aged and older UUCA members, and a few nonmembers, to share their concerns and discoveries about successful aging, and I’ve led a Covenant Group discussion on the subject. I’m sure you all join me in thanking the generous people who contributed time and thought to help others. I’d like to tell you their names, but there are way too many. I’ll mention only one: George, my husband, who contributed his ideas and support during the time of preparation.

A number of our thoughtful contributors spoke with great satisfaction about the perspective their years of experience have given them, finding it a powerful source of continuing personal and spiritual growth. They have little doubt that others find them more interesting because of this growth. Some have dropped illusions about themselves and are happy to see their lives more realistically. One spoke of her sense of deep fulfillment when she helps young people achieve a better understanding of aspects of life that puzzle them, particularly their personal relationships. Her perspective in middle age tells her not to shelter them from pain but to help them come out of it safely while learning something of value.

Several contributors pointed out the importance of warm, loving family relationships. “You have to get started early,” said one man, “maintaining good relationships with your siblings and then your children. Your self-discipline and consideration will pay well at the time and reward you even more as you get older.”

One woman advises, “Friendships are important. Don’t just wait for them to happen.   Look for people who share an interest with you. It may be playing tennis or cards, knitting, cooking, volunteering to help an organization, anything you enjoy. It will lead to finding congenial people.”

Some older contributors have a warning: There’s no getting around the fact that there will be differences in your life. Your friendships will feel different from those of your youth. Your body and brain will start having difficulties and deficiencies that can’t always be remedied. For the rest of your life you’ll have to make decisions based on increasingly limited abilities. Our contributors tell us that you may meet these changes with despair, or anger, or acceptance. Choose acceptance, they recommend—serene acceptance if possible, maybe even joyful acceptance.   However, you may need to remind yourself from time to time about how desirable a positive attitude is, and what helps you to renew it.

One woman told me about an aunt who had loved to paint ever since she was a child. Some of her happiest hours were those she spent creating colorful images on canvas. As she aged she developed macular degeneration, leaving her with only peripheral vision. She was not deterred; she continued painting. Then she had a stroke which kept her from using her right hand. As soon as she was up and around she began painting again, now using her left hand. She joked, “This will be my abstract period.” Nothing could keep her from her enjoyment of painting.

One of our contributors recommends an attitude of openness to mystery and wonder. “The older I get,” she says, “the more I find to wonder about. It’s like part of me keeps on growing. I don’t ever want to be finished!”

I find this to be so in my life.   For the past year or so I have ended my morning yoga sessions by gazing thoughtfully at a big maple tree. I have seen it in our back yard for twenty years. But now I find myself taking it in with my eyes. I feel myself as erect as it is, as capable of growth, as much a part of the interdependent web of all existence.   I focus on its roots, connected to the local skin of our planet—Western North Carolina red clay mixed with pebbles, flakes of mica, bits of decomposing plants. My feet become roots powerfully connected to the planet. I wonder whether in the universe around me there are other planets with other conscious entities living on them. Are they too wondering about the possibility of other planets?

Walt Whitman wrote a poem about the universe as an open road. Late in the poem he calls the universe “many roads for traveling souls”. We can hear it as his version of the journey of aging. Please turn to Reading No. 645, “Song of the Open Road”, in the gray hymnal. Pat will read the standard type and you can respond with the italic type.

One contributor of ideas about successful aging reminds us, “You can be amazed over and over by the same simple things that caught your attention as a child, but with an adult’s perspective. Let your heart be lifted when you watch the rising sun light up the clouds. Feel the power of the wind as it makes the trees bow, and the strength of the resisting wood.”

Some contributors said their feeling of success in aging comes mainly from their continued ability to be of service to other sentient beings—not just other human beings but animals too. Service makes these folks valuable and valued. Even those who need walkers or wheelchairs or are bedbound can continue serving, offering to people or to companion animals the unique understanding and abilities that come from their years of living. Their value doesn’t come from their vigor but from their loving generosity.

Some contributors have very practical advice about successful aging:

  • Choose a house or apartment that will help you maintain your independence as long as possible.
  • Live where there’s a mix of ages, not just older people.
  • Choose a physician whose views about continuing a painful life, or ending it, are the same as yours. If you need to choose a nursing facility, make that congruence of views one of your criteria.
  • Be aware that laws which allow self-ending of one’s life tend to lead to longer lives, as several studies have shown, since people are likely to put up with more discomfort when they know they may end their lives.
  • Be sure to have all your end-of-life documents filled out, signed, notarized if necessary, and placed where they are accessible to the people who will use them to follow your directives.

I have a story from my own life to illustrate that point.

Many years ago my father was admitted to a hospital because of pneumonia. My mother stayed with him for the three days that ensued before his death. She desperately wanted to hear whatever last words he might say to her, but because of an apparatus to deliver oxygen it was not possible for him to speak.

His passing was not only sad for her but also a great source of frustration. She was determined that her death would not be like that. So a few weeks after his funeral she made out her living will and gave me her health care power of attorney.

Twenty years later she needed the care of a nursing facility. My brother Bo and I accompanied her there, together with her end-of-life documents.

By that time she rarely spoke—it was just too much effort. As Bo and I were sitting with her she whispered, “I’m…too…tired.” As far as we know, those were her last words.

Later the head of the nursing staff said to Bo and me, “We’ll have to put your mother on supplementary oxygen and a feeding tube.”

I saw Bo snap to attention. “Those are forbidden in her living will,” he said.

The nurse replied sadly, “I’m sorry—the living will can take effect only when her condition is clearly terminal. We don’t know that right now. We are required to make every effort to keep her alive.”

I spoke up. “I have her health care power of attorney. I believe it gives me the right to see that our mother’s living will is followed.”

The nurse brightened. “Indeed it does! Now we can do what we know your mother wanted.”

Because my mother had planned so well, her life was allowed to ebb away at its own pace. She died that night with her hand in my brother’s. If she could have spoken, that’s what she would have asked for.

I find that to be successful aging right up to the last moment.

The Reverend Forrest Church, Unitarian Universalist minister, had this to say about dying:

“Death is not life’s goal, only life’s terminus. The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”

What makes a life worth dying for? Dr. Church had an answer: “…the love we give away before we go.”

And that insight brings us to one last category of ideas on successful aging—love. Our love is a blessing to ourselves and to our life partners, families, friends, everyone we interact with. Love is a motive for service and a source of meaning in a life with less and less physical energy.

The Reverend Dr. Carter Heyward says, “Love is a choice—not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.”

One contributor pointed out that a loving attitude makes us attractive to others, keeps us connected to the people and companion animals in our lives. Another said she sees people, especially children, who need to know they are worthy of love. She said, “I try to fill that gap in whatever way the circumstances allow.” One contributor said that in his experience, thinking about what makes another person lovable leads him to think about what makes him lovable. It’s a powerful boost to his belief in himself.

What I’ve told you in the past few minutes doesn’t nearly cover all the thoughts about successful aging that people gave me to pass along to you. Fortunately, the printed version of this sermon will have many of them added. Copies are available in the rack on the east wall of the foyer.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about aging:

I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.

We too can give ourselves to it. May we feel a sense of fulfillment in this widening and this giving.