It can be dangerous applying observations about individual behavior to groups. But, I am going to venture into just such territory for two reasons. The first is that we need to encourage each other to pay attention to the advice that comes from scientific research for our own health. And the second reason is linked to the fact that we embrace the metaphor of the body of Christ to talk about community and some of these suggestions for individuals could be helpful for the community as well.
In a recent article from NextAvenue, Holly Lawrence summarizes research in the area of self-perception. She sites Becca Levi who has coined the term “self-aging-perception phenomenon”. Basically, when a person believes that aging is a negative process, it negatively affects their self-concept, performance, health and how long they live. Levi’s work has revealed that individuals who hold positive images of aging, live on average 7.5 years longer than those with negative attitudes!
In Lawrence’s article, she highlights 4 “traps” that people fall into that only reinforce the ageist, negative perceptions.
- Participating in Self-deprecation. We use the excuse that we are too “old” to be doing X, Y or Z. Or that it just takes too much energy to continue to do the same old thing. Yes, energy levels vary in different chapters of our lives. We need to give permission to each other to change roles and ways of participating in community as we age. But we also need to discover what new passions ignite our sensibilities and lead us into new opportunities for ministry.
- Feeling Out of Place. If our interests and passions lead us in areas that are deemed to be only for those decades younger than ourselves, we need the courage to continue to be engaged. A chaplain at one of our retirement communities, had a group engage in the White Privilege curriculum launched through the UCC. Most would assume that such conversations are not relevant for those living in long term care neighborhoods, but the residents were engaged and participated thoroughly. One resident was led to consider a situation that happened seven decades earlier resulting in a new sense of understanding and resolution.
- Assume No One is Listening: There is so much emphasis in the church that we must attract youth and young adults, that it can feel as if no one cares about those who are decades older. Yes, there is a need to be concerned about planting the seeds and supporting the journeys of the young who are at the beginning of their life paths. But there is ample evidence to suggest that the need for intergenerational relationships is vital for youth. There is also growing evidence that intergenerational interactions between the very young and the very old benefits both generations. The church is one of the only places that has consistently brought multiple generations together on a weekly basis. Let’s make sure no one is given the impression that their generation is no longer needed or heard!
- Avoiding and Retreating: Those who assume that they have nothing to contribute, those who have been belittled because of the physical signs of aging (for example, listing white hair and wrinkling skin as marks of a dying church) and those whose voices are no longer heard or who have been told that they are out of date, will retreat from participation in the larger community. The community is then diminished because the experience and creativity that can grow with age is not valued.
Lawrence’s article then suggests three ways to help overcome succumbing to the negative self-perceptions. Here are my adjustments to apply these to congregations:
First, don’t label people by their chronological age. Think in terms of generational cohorts and recognize that in adulthood we sometimes have more in common based on life experiences than the number of years lived. When one member of our congregation was asked how it was that she stayed so active and “young”, Ruth suggested that her secret was to always find people younger than herself to include in her circle of friends.
Second, find positive role models who have embraced the aging process. I call these individuals my “aging heroes”. Ruth, mentioned above, was one of these for many of us. Similarly, we need to lift up the stories of aging congregations who have not given in to the predictions that their church will die with them. I would love to hear about your congregation’s stories! We need to encourage each other.
And finally, we need to live as if we are ageless–which the church has been for two thousand years. We have been able to pass along the gospel by being relevant to the generations of individuals in each century.
We happen to live in a time when our population is older, as Dr. Laura Carstensen points out in her her book, “A Long Bright Future”. Between 1900 and 2000 we have added thirty years to the human lifespan. This is a gift that demands that we reconsider every stage of our life journey and re-examine the role and purpose of our institutions and assumptions about our journeys through adulthood. We have the opportunity to embrace this reality and discover how it is that God is still speaking no matter who you are, where you’ve been, or how long you have been on the journey—your faith will continue to grow! The question is whether or not the church will be a place for this growth to occur in our later years. I certainly hope so.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Executive Director, Ruth Parker Center for Abundant Aging at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.