Since I started serving in the older adult world, I’ve had many elders tell me that growing old is a difficult process. As the saying goes, “It’s not for sissies.” They are often a bit bemused that they’ve lived so long and are sometimes unsure how to frame the future. What does hope look like at 90?
I’ve been thinking that as the losses mount up as we age that there needs to be room for lament. So often we tell ourselves and the elders we work with to “be positive!” It’s good to have a positive attitude, but it’s also good, I think, to be able to name what has been lost and to take some time to lament the loss of something that is precious. I’ve sometimes wondered if the elders we tend to label as “complainers” might end up that way because their important losses weren’t validated and noted.
The Psalms in the Jewish and Christian scriptures contain many examples of laments: times when the Psalmist cries out to God about the impossible situation in which he finds himself and asks, “How long?” It’s not so much that the questioner is expecting an answer, but that he expects to be heard and understood.
Chaplains often speak of the ministry of presence. That means learning to be with people in impossible and difficult situations that you can do nothing to change. That’s the part that makes accompanying elders on their aging journey so difficult. We can’t change it, we can only be present, listen and understand, and possibly provide a bit of hope.
One of the ways we can do that is to reflect back with a person who is recounting a difficult story on the ways that they were resilient, creative, and brave when facing that situation. Fred Mandell, an artist and leadership consultant, says: “When one weaves together the warp and woof of one’s personal experience into a story about oneself that embodies resilience, hope and belief in the ability to make a difference, then one has created a powerful foundation.” He goes on to list affirmations that contribute to this foundation. They are:
I am resilient
I am resourceful
I am a learner
I am self-reflective
I land on my feet
I can self-correct
I’ve known fear and acted despite it
I know how to ask for help
I am honest with myself
I am accountable
I have the capacity to give and receive love
I have the capacity to forgive
It seems to me that these are the qualities that we want to affirm in ourselves and in the elders whose stories we hear. Can we frame those stories in terms of resilience, hope, and the belief in the ability to continue to make a difference? And is this what hope looks like at 90?