The truth about aging
Attorney and elder advocate Michael Offenheiser says aging brings wisdom & dignity . . .
There’s something unique about babies born in 2007. The government recently reported that those children can expect to live nearly 78 years. That puts the record for average American life expectancy at an all-time high — a record I’m sure will only last until the government releases data for babies born in 2008.
People are living longer and, with more baby boomers hitting retirement age, the elderly population is about to explode like no other time in history. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there were 35 million Americans over 65 in 2000. Today there are 40 million. In 10 years: 55 million!
But these aren’t the only numbers on the rise. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports there was a 457% increase in the number of cosmetic procedures between 1997 and 2007. Despite the sagging economy, Americans still spent nearly $12 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2008. These numbers suggest that aging is being met with increasing resistance — which is not at all surprising. After all, Pope John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae that we’re living in a Culture of Death “which sees the growing number of elderly … as intolerable and too burdensome” (#64).
The Culture of Death commonly refers to problems of abortion and euthanasia. But it’s broader than that. Without realizing it, the Culture of Death, which extols the virtues of eternal youth, has so permeated our thinking that many of us (even faithful Catholics) have a distorted view of what it means to grow old.
We dread birthdays. We don’t reveal our age. We don’t talk about death. Some take the “Viagra” approach to life and try to artificially reignite the flame of youth. We undergo expensive cosmetic procedures to mitigate the physical effects of aging and push the thought of our own death far from our minds.
Notwithstanding this prevailing attitude, old age is a great gift — and not because it simply defers our inevitable demise. In The Dignity of Older People and Their Mission in the Church and in the World, the Pontifical Council for the Laity suggests that God created the aged condition by design. If we accept old age as a gift designed by God for our benefit, we can use the unique qualities that characterize old age to unlock grace in our lives and build a bridge from this life to the next. There are four qualities of old age in particular that can make it a grace-filled time of life:
Quieting of the passions. As people age, their hormone levels drop. As a result, the elderly have fewer temptations to sin brought on by bodily passions and heightened emotions. With fewer temptations, they have a greater capacity to grow in the life of grace.
Prayer and mission. The elderly have more free time — time to pray, attend daily Mass and engage in missionary activities. Dignity of Older People says that the elderly “have entered upon a time of extraordinary grace which opens to them new opportunities for prayer and union with God. Called to serve others and to offer their lives to the Lord and Giver of Life, new spiritual powers are given to them” (emphasis added).
Cultivation and sharing of wisdom. The elderly don’t often fall victim to the mistakes of youth. They’ve learned from the past, cultivated wisdom and, if they’ve been striving for holiness, have spent years battling their vices. They continue to grow in prudence, learn the truths of the faith and advance ever closer to Christian perfection. They also have the opportunity to be teachers and witnesses to younger generations, sharing the wisdom they’ve acquired.
Suffering. Christ conquered death through suffering on the cross and raised human suffering to the level of redemption. Hence, human suffering can be redemptive. Suffering allows the elderly to exercise moral greatness and grow deeper in spiritual maturity. Through suffering, one’s ultimate calling to love is released. John Paul called suffering a “special vocation” — especially for the aged, whose lives are often filled with physical and emotional pain.
By characterizing old age with these four qualities, God designed old age to be a time of great grace. But many are so saturated in the Culture of Death that they’re unwittingly influenced by its philosophies and resist the very aspects of the aging process which make it a blessed and grace-filled time of life.
Today’s youth will indeed live longer than today’s elderly. But how these youth will spend their sunset years remains to be seen. John Paul found great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord would call him from life to life! Let us follow the magnificent example of grace-filled aging that John Paul left us, and let’s work to create a culture that recognizes the truth about aging. We can do this by critically evaluating our personal perceptions of aging — and by whole-heartedly embracing our journey to (or through) old age.
Michael J. Offenheiser is an elder law attorney in Fresno, Calif., and founder of Spring Chicken Ministries, devoted to educating the elderly. For more: SpringChickenMinistries@gmail.com