The Elder Years – Courage My Loves!

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

We operate on the assumption that we have time.   Never enough time for everything , but that phone call or unwritten letter can be done next week.  Procrastination is based on the assurance that there is a future in which we’ll be capable of doing what we postpone.  We assume our bodies and minds will perform as they do now.

That’s the double illusion.  Plenty of time and ongoing capacity.  The harsh reality: those will diminish the longer we live.

We Think We Know

So, of course we’ll grow old.  But being old will be a slightly altered extension of the present, no?  We ‘ll be a little less strong but all the exercise we do now will have some pay-off, no?  We’ll get some ailments but modern medicine works wonders.  It will be terrible to lose friends and family, but we’ve managed losses before.

And for about 20 years, between 50 and 70 years of age, there seem to be many who have taken care of themselves and have muscles strong enough to hold the aging bones in place.  Entering Masters tournaments and running Marathons – bravo!  Encourages the rest of us.

Limited Resources!

But time is inexorable.  The hard truth is that the elderly have access to fewer resources than do the  young.  That means the old have less control over all kinds of things.  And I’m not even mentioning the wild card of mortality.  Death and dying – another whole topic.

Physical capacity

The body is wonderfully elastic.  In late middle age, you can have a bad day and then 10 good ones.  Complaints about aches and pains, accompanied by chuckles, turn up more often.  But with so many ways of tending to the discomforts, and barring serious accident, we can keep hopping, skipping, and jumping indefinitely.  Until we can’t.

What a surprise!  An athletic person suddenly can’t walk without pain – for days in a row.  Get thee to a  hip replacement!  But while thousands of hips and knees are repaired, and full mobility restored, as the next decade passes it becomes clear that some activities are off the agenda.  Falling is not an option, which really puts a cramp in one’s style on the ice or soccer field.

A fit and active friend, whose hip was replaced 10 years ago, continued a busy physical life for most of the time since.  Until recently.  Pain drove her to a full-body check-up, after which arthritis of the spine and knees was determined, and the other hip needs replacing.  This isn’t tragedy in the sense of underserved hardship forced upon her.  At 73, she expresses gratitude for all the goodness in her life.  But she can’t help grieving that even walking now hurts.  Short –term remedies will allow more good times into the future, but she has had to let herself recognize the loss of a valued part of herself.  And it hurts; it’s real loss.

Mildred, Who Is 100

Time to interject that there are amazing and lively people out there who have moved through the elder years gracefully and with zest.  It is clearly possible for us to live through the losses and the gains and keep a balance, remaining part of what’s going on around us.   No doubt.   But  give Mildred – and all elderly folk – credit if they have accomplished that well.  Mildred tells me it’s not easy,

Other Possible Cheerfulness Deal-Breakers

There are good hearing aids, and glasses, and cataract surgeries, and ways of coping with diminished faculties.  Up to a point. There’s no real preparing for not being able to hear what friends are saying, or for rejecting the offer of a good book because the print is too small (blessed e-Readers !).  I wonder if I have been appropriately sympathetic to an elderly person who slows the conversation down by poor hearing, or who asks me to read some small print ?  Kindly enough, maybe, but have I really tried to appreciate what it’s like to lose something you’ve always counted on?  I may be finding out soon!

A Key Shrinking Resource

It’s taken years into retirement to appreciate the reality of no salary.  I had never truly imagined a time when I would not generate an income.  Thought I could work forever.  I can’t!  I’m not dependable.  I get tired .  A nap is restorative but an employer doesn’t provide a cot..

I still imagine other careers I might undertake.  An ad for a program at the local university gets me wondering.  Then I remember – everything has start-up costs and I’m not a good investment, even for myself.  Borrowing isn’t possible when there’s no fresh income for pay-back.  So many former ways of thinking have to drop away.

And by tomorrow I’m glad that I’m home for the day – really want a quiet one.

So again it’s double illusions that have taken a hit.  First that I have the physical resources to do whatever I’d like to in the world of work, and then that there are the means to finance new ventures.

Takes Time to Acquire a Realistic Senior Self-Image

The myth about Inuu elders, in former times, determining when they were becoming a burden on the family, saying goodbye and heading out on an ice flow seemed terrible to me at one time.  But is the wisdom of the practice that the old one didn’t face decades of diminishing  capacity, and of becoming unable to contribute to the group?  No illusions maintained there.

Being able to take part and be of help – are we able to be happy without that chance?

So what is a useful positive self-image for us to move toward?  I like the idea, once the most dysfunctional illusions are dropped, of getting to know who I am without those old resources.  What and Who am I left with?   Could discovering this be one of the Senior Adventures?

Please consider Commenting with your own travels toward Senior Adventure.



Filed under A Bigger Circle, Rosemary's entries, Uncategorized

6 responses to “The Elder Years – Courage My Loves!

  1. JoAnne Harrop

    I’m looking forward to doing some online courses – through Coursera and its fellows – and am glad to hear you have bees to watch. This is a time to enjoy in all the ways we can! Thanks for the food or thought, and inspiration. XO

  2. Thank you, Rosemary, for continuing to write “The Bigger Circle Blog”. I attach to this letter an Ignatian reflection that was sent to my husband & me this week by a friend, as a means of encouraging our own walk of faithful, cheerful patience as we interact with our two mothers who, as my mother says, “have very old bodies”.

    Monday in the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

    Wisdom, the Sacred Space
    Today’s reading from Sirach speaks of Wisdom. Ineffable wisdom.
    “…Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and
    human favor.” (Luke 2:52). These are his ‘hidden years.” The
    years scripture only rarely speaks off. The private years of Jesus’s youth and childhood. The years of Jesus’ maturing intimacy with his Father which took place amid the nurturing supportive intimacy of his family, friends and community.

    What little I know about wisdom I have experienced in others. My
    96 year-old mother who has lived with us for the past 3 years ‘has’ what the world calls “dementia”. Mom lives in the reality of the moment. She is lured into ongoing creation which surrounds her and all. Every day’s sunset is as if the first God created. Mom
    does not wait for the sunset or anticipate it. However, when she
    notices it she enthusiastically responds. As one artist to another
    she delights in the play of light and shadow, vibrant colors, and
    muted tones of the sky. She is enthralled by wind driven clouds
    which race and chase across threatening skies. Mom is absorbed in majestic creation. She stands prayerfully awestruck until this gift slips below the horizon or scuttles off to delight equally attentive others. As she is captivated, so am I in her. A mystical experience for each.

    What does this have to do with wisdom? I’m not sure.
    I asked my mother what was the most significant thing she had
    learned in her 96 years. After a few moments of what turned out to be contemplative silence she answered, “to wait”. Isn’t that what Jesus’ hidden years were about? A waiting time, a time before he began his public ministry, a time when he “increased in wisdom and age and in divine …favor”. A time when Jesus grew in deeper passionate intimacy with his Father.

    What does this have to do with wisdom? I’m still not sure. The hidden years a sacred space. “They(exiles) long for the place
    and the people they remember as their own. They suffer from a
    homesickness caused by too long an absence from all that roots
    them and gives them their identity.” (M.Williams SJ, The Gift of
    Spiritual Intimacy pg 136) Is this not a description of Jesus’
    years of public ministry and pathway into resurrection? As my
    mother continues on her path, a path we also walk, she knowingly
    or unknowingly shares snippets of conversation between her and
    my father, between her and her two beloved brothers and between her and the “little girl” who at night often stands at Mom’s
    bedside. Mom joyfully invites her into bed, “Can you climb up
    here? Come on, get in here, keep those feet warm.” Who is this
    ‘little girl’ so real, so precious? The world calls this reality
    hallucination. How different is it from angels who came to Jesus’
    aid while he was in the dessert? Is it not similar to the angels,
    messengers sent by the Spirit, to many in scripture? Messengers
    who invite, who offer insight and wisdom into God’s ways.

    What does this have to do with wisdom? What does any of this have to say about wisdom? I think it has a lot to say about wisdom. Could wisdom be the gift of recognition; to be able to notice and to respond to the presence of God? Oh, to be so wise.
    Today’s Good-news: wisdom is another of Creation’s art offered
    to all, even to me.

  3. I am enjoying my elder years though at times I feel I am busier now than I was
    when teaching full time and being a wife and mother at the same time.

    I put in my balcony garden at the start of May and have still a few containers to find plants for. I watered the plants this morning before taking off for the noon hour Mass at the Paulist Ministry. I had to make payments for the course I’ll start on Saturday morning at Trinity College, U of T. I’m going to be doing “Storytellers, Blending Your Story With God’s Story” . It is being given by a professor named Sally Wotton. I expect
    there will be a lot of acting in it.

    I’m also kept busy preparing stories for every alternate week when I tell to very little ones at the Children’s Liturgy at St Peter’s.

    Sincerely, Molly

  4. Juanita Rathbun

    Your article on aging is very interesting and particularly relevant to my life. Life slows down considerably as we adjust to these new realities. I remain happy in the knowledge that I can still enjoy music – radio, TV and CD’s but I also enjoy making music on the piano. I still love to read – but you are right , the eyes tire more quickly these days. Thank goodness for “talking books” which are available in increasing numbers these days. In addition, the advent of the computer and the internet have opened up a whole new world to those of us who have learned how to use this new technology. And…..I am thankful that my “accelerator foot” is still alive and well so that I can still get to my destinations in my car independently. So… growing old is not easy , just different.


  5. I can relate to so much of what you have there that I will try to pick out just a couple of points or this will go on forever.

    The illusion of time you start with was interesting. I was just emailing with a sister-in-law in London who is 73 this very day and who just sent me Jesuit prayers for a year for my 70th. I was telling her all I need now is to “get my ass” to Confession and I’ll be ready for anything. But what partly has been stopping me was, not belief in the efficacy of the Sacrament, but figuring out how long it’s been since my last Confession. I used to go to daily Mass and confess with some regularity at the prayer group I used to go to on Tuesdays evenings at the St. Mike’s H.S. chapel. Then I had my breakdown at work in 1996, calling in sick on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph [the worker] no less. I felt let down, dare I say betrayed, and my religious practice to this day has not been the same. As if I have forever and can get around to it in my own good time. Literally “playing with fire”?

    One thought I’ve had as I read your blog is the focus on this life, rather than the next. I shouldn’t assume you believe in the next life. I think there have come to be many Catholics who don’t. Have I told you about Maria Valtorta, the visionary to whom I owe so much. You can google her, but she was a bedridden Italian who wrote a 4,000-page life of Christ in the 1940s, and 2,000 or 3,000 more pages on assorted topics, including our modern times and the end times. Based on visions and dictations that mostly Jesus gave her. Jesus in her writings makes clear the great importance of the distinction between what He calls “spirit” and what He calls “flesh”, and in the grand scheme of things, spirit is everything, while the flesh is nothing other than to keep us going and perhaps to drag us down.

    So, on the note you conclude with, what have we been reduced to? can we still contribute? Maria Valtorta personally answered that in a way. A devotee of St. Therese, The Little Flower, I think when the writings that Jesus wanted of her were accomplished, she offered her mind to God as a kind of victim soul, a Theresian thing to do, and after that kind of “lost her mind”. She would spend hours and hours writing little nothings on prayer cards. Didn’t we use to call them “ejaculations”, short little affirmations, e.g. “My Lord and my God!”? But what’s most interesting was this. Whenever anyone would come to ask her a question about some point in her writings, she would snap back to attention and her old lucidity would return. Then, after the person had been fully answered and left, she would go back to her seemingly silly writing on the prayer cards.

    So we might become greatly reduced physically or mentally as MV was, bedridden for the last 30 or so years of her life to 61. Or virtually blind as was my holy grandmother, who went to 95 and was for years “the honey that all her family bees, old and young, went to”, even while wondering and questioning while she lived on even as her children were being taken. We can be physically very little, but dynamos spiritually, the only thing that really matters.

  6. Sharon Alleyne

    Interesting article now i know what i have to look forward to in 20 years.

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