When I was 18, I had about two hundred grandmothers, give or take fifty.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d had a maintenance job at a nearby retirement community for more than two years, and, during that time, I’d gotten to know the residents pretty well. For three summers, I cleaned all their windows, a process made much more difficult by my constant struggle against all the knickknacks on the windowsills.
Sometimes as I worked in a room, a lady would catch my interest with a story about the Great Depression or her first car ride. Or a gentleman would offer me a Coke and a story about his exploits during World War II. My five-minute work on the windows would morph into a 10- or 15-minute adventure. Some of these storytellers had emigrated from the Netherlands. Others came from the Dutch neighborhoods around Chicago or were African Americans who had moved from the city to the suburbs. Many, though not all, were still fiercely independent, physically and mentally.
I quit when too many of them started dying. When I started having to repatch and repaint the same holes that I’d drilled for their pictures.And exciting, too. Somewhat mischievous. Interesting. Kind. Loving. Cranky, but caring at the same time. Opinionated – very opinionated. And I found that I loved working for them. I loved stopping in their rooms to fix toilets or turn on computers or program TVs or hang pictures.
I quit when too many of them started dying. When I started having to repatch and repaint the same holes that I’d drilled for their pictures. When I realized that people faded quickly and passed away soon after they came to live in the community. They deteriorated because of loneliness and sadness and frustration. Those on the assisted-living floor appeared to live longer, but it seemed mostly because of their dementia, which worked as a kind of blessing in disguise, shielding them from the pain of living in such a place, away from their families, friends, churches – away from the rest of their lives.
And I got angry. Angry at the relatives who didn’t visit. The pastors who didn’t call. The nurses who didn’t care. The administration that didn’t act. The chaplain who didn’t empathize. I hated watching the residents die in the months leading up to their passings. And so I left, but I couldn’t let go of my memories of Lena and Jim and Barb and Henry and all the others I’d come to know at my job.
DISDAIN FOR ELDERLY
Allow me to switch gears to the North American exercise culture and its whole anti-aging bent. Take, for instance, the 50-year-old guy who offered this: “I don’t believe in age. I don’t believe in aging. Whatever … Take care of your body, and it will take care of you. ‘Cause time keeps tickin’. You keep gettin’ older. You can get better, or you can get all gooey, crotchety, old, pathetic, icky, gross. Not me. Not into it.”
There is something profoundly wrong with that perspective. And there’s something profoundly wrong with the ageism that it leads to, the discrimination and disdain toward the elderly.
We have let too much of American materialism into our theologies of aging. We buy the lie that young, sexy and toned is good and that older, aged and tired is bad. We buy the lie that old people are “gross” and “pathetic,” and so we move them into “communities” and then let them fade away. We visit on birthdays and holidays or the occasional day when we have a bit of extra time. But for the most part, we’re glad to be free of our elders when the time finally comes so that we can move on with our lives.
We need a better theology of aging. We need to love those saints on the cusp of glory. We need to visit them. We need to listen to them, sincerely. We need to look in their eyes and see the wisdom that is there. We need not pity and estrange them. We need, rather, to incorporate them back into our lives somehow and care for them.
I don’t know exactly what that’s supposed to look like, which might seem like a cop-out. But I believe that this re-examination of our attitude toward age is a collective task – one that demands a careful, comprehensive look by all of us.
Let us not forget our fellow human beings – our parents and grandparents and nutty great uncles, our fellow Christians – but continue to learn from those our society has devalued.
Such saints surround us.
Brandon Haan is associate pastor at Brookfield Christian Reformed Church, near Milwaukee. He blogs at www.brandonhaan.com.
Photo by Xavi Talleda/Flickr; used under Creative Commons License.