Author’s Note: This blog post is reprised, in part, from an article I was asked to submit to Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation. Shalom! is a quarterly publication of the Brethren in Christ Church. Its mission is to educate and stimulate Christ-like responses to the needs of society by providing biblical, theological, sociological, denominational and personal perspectives on a variety of contemporary issues. As I look ahead to celebrating 10 years of employment here, it seemed a fitting time to dust off this reflection and share it.
In 2005, just after giving birth to my first child, I decided to leave my job as Director of Annual Giving at Messiah College to work as a fundraiser at Messiah Village (now Messiah Lifeways at Messiah Village), a neighboring retirement community with deep Anabaptist roots. When people first heard the news, their responses ranged from cautionary to downright amusing.
“Won’t it be depressing – working with all those old people?”
“Won’t you miss the energy and fun of campus life?”
“Who will you ask for money? You know that Messiah Village doesn’t have alumni, right?”
Admittedly, I was making a big professional leap. I was leaving a beloved job so I could spend more time with my growing family. While I laughed outwardly, I knew there was some truth in all that good-natured teasing. Would this be a good fit for me? Little did I know that the change would bring transforming joy, inspiration, and spiritual growth – blessings far beyond the provision of a regular paycheck.
A decade later, I know I made the right choice. Beyond the satisfaction of using my professional skills to advance our mission and ministry, I have discovered countless opportunities for personal enrichment. My vocation has also shaped my own view of retirement and aging.
As the mother of two young children, I often joke that I’ll sleep when I retire. When I find myself knee-deep in laundry and dishes, weary from late nights and too-early alarms, it sometimes seems I’ll never have a quiet moment to myself. But deep inside I know that these precious children will grow up in the blink of an eye and I’ll be left yearning for one more chance to tuck them under the covers. What will my life look like when my nest is empty and my formal working years are finished? I pray that it will be full of zest and purpose – as modeled for me by my friends at Messiah Village. As I reflect on the years I’ve spent serving among remarkable people age 55 and better, I’ve made some observations about purposeful aging. I hope my thoughts will spark a new idea in your mind or help you have a meaningful conversation with someone you love.
Embrace the Journey
One morning I found my then kindergarten-aged son dawdling as we were trying to leave the house. Exasperated, I finally said, “Hurry up, Noah, I’m not getting any younger.” Without missing a beat, he looked right at me and said, with a fair dose of gumption, “Well, neither am I.” That simple exchange still stays with me. You can try to deny it or ignore it, but as long as God grants us breath, we are moving towards the eventual end of our earthly life. I have found that those men and women who embrace the journey of aging are most contented. They don’t look for a fountain of youth and they don’t complain bitterly about turning the calendar pages. Rather, they take chances – they are curious and eager to make the most of their days. I remember visiting a resident who had just bought a beautiful new cello. She always wanted to play an instrument so, in her mid – 80’s, she started taking lessons. She played a few sweet, delicate notes for me, still nervous about playing in front of someone other than her teacher. Before I left, she shared that she had just purchased her season tickets for the symphony – and she made sure her seats offered a perfect view of the cello section.
Whoever coined the phrase “never a dull moment” must have spent time in communities like ours at Messiah Village. Where else can you buy freshly-squeezed lemonade made by memory-support residents, watch baby chicks hatch, play a round of disc golf, compete in a trivia contest, take in a spirited water volleyball match, and see faithful volunteers who are well into their 90’s and 100’s? In fact, I sometimes find it difficult to visit residents because of their active schedules. I once sat for several minutes with a woman scouring her pocket calendar, searching for a small block of time when we could have a cup of tea. Between exercising, lifelong learning classes, volunteering, visiting family, joining in church activities, and entertaining neighbors, she was booked! Aging often brings physical challenges and limitations but there is no limit to the power of human connection – a hug, a smile, the touch of a hand, a spoken word or song. One essential facet of purposeful aging is to age in community – surrounded by caring people. Whether you live with family, age-in-place in your own residence, or enjoy the camaraderie of neighbors like those who live in a retirement community, the key is to maintain relationships. I know that I have become more committed to cultivating deep friendships that will carry me through the phases of my life. And I want to be the kind of friend and neighbor who looks out for the lonely and isolated because no one should walk the journey alone.
Find Time to Be Kind
A favorite saying about retirement comes from a retired human rights activist, photographer, and actor who brightened my life in many ways. When asked what he liked most about retirement, he said, “I have more time to be kind.” Perhaps the most notable observation I’ve made about enjoying the third age of life is to maintain an outward focus. Instead of dwelling on aches and losses, focus on what remains – what can still be done – what can still be enjoyed. Just this past Saturday, I attended a joy-filled service of resurrection and celebration for a wonderful friend who died in her 90th year. One of the eulogies focused on Esther’s gratitude and how she always expressed thanks for what remained. Even when physical limitations kept some of her activities at bay, she always shared appreciation for what she could still learn, conversations she could still have, experiences she could still savor. Over the years I have met so many remarkable people with remarkable stories – stories they have shared graciously and freely with me. I am forever indebted to them for sharing the wisdom of their journey so that I may walk mine with more love, more faith, and more hope for the future. Here’s to another decade of zest, purpose, and faith-filled living.