The Far Shore of Aging - Mark 4:35-41
A college football player had to skip some of practice everyday to go see his father in the hospital, He’d been in the hospital for some time now...awaiting a heart transplant..
We live in a period of a new old age.
A mother who is also a grandmother is preparing for a lengthy time away, as her mother has taken a turn and is needing more help. She is not sure what this means for her, what her responsibilities may be in the near future..
we live in a period of a new old age.
Parents sit down with their adult children to talk to them about things to consider as they get older, their desires, plans they are making, and who might take on what responsibilities.
One of the children gets up and leaves during the conversation.
After a recent cancer diagnosis, adult children attempt to talk to their parents about what they may be thinking down the road for care. The parents change the subject.
We have entered into what has been called a period of a new old age.
So much about how life is lived has changed in the past 100 years.
One significant change taking place before us is the nature of aging.
Like all changes, this has an upside and a downside.
Blogger and author Jane Gross has reflected a lot on this new reality of aging.
She wrote a memoir entitled A Bittersweet Season: Caring for our aging parents--and ourselves, which she wrote as her mother went through a long decline after her mid-80s.
Jane Gross says poignantly: "We live too long and die too slowly."
Jane Gross, born in 1947, doesn’t remember a lot of older people around when she was growing up. By the time she was born, only two of her four grandparents were alive. One died suddenly; he had been a vibrant man and then, kerplunk, in the street the next day.
This is how my great-grandfather died as well. literally, from vibrant getting around to Kerplunk in the street.
Fast forward to 20 years or so later to the time when my grandparents were dying, and these were long drawn out deaths, thanks to so-called “advances” in medicine.
My grandfather, for example had a living will, had a heart attack when he was 93, but they resuscitated him anyway, and he spent his last several months of life in hospice care, during a period he called, the worst days of his life.
I have visited with any number of parishioners who are living this new old age reality, they or their relative is living this in-between time that didn’t used to exist to the extent that it does now, and we are all trying to make sense of it.
I loved visiting with Alice Martinez of my church in Santa Fe who was 95 when I met her. She would insist I visit her once a week to plans her funeral. She would tell me, “I’m dying.” If her daughter, a nurse and the primary caregiver was there she would say, “Mom, you’re not sick, your heart is healthy; You’ve got to die of something!”
When considering this new old age reality the first question we have to ask:
Is it okay to talk about this topic of aging and dying?
Something everyone can relate to, but not everyone wants to acknowledge.
When geriatrician, Joanne Lynn asks her audiences of health experts: "How many of you expect to die?" Not everyone shoots up their hands!
In the period of a new old age --
Everybody wants to believe that we are going to be perfectly healthy, climbing the Himalayas one day and dead the next.
But the reality is something like what Jane Gross experienced with her mother who was fine and independent and then in 100 small ways, none of which were going to do her in, was not fine and became dependent on other people, strangers, her children.
In the new old age. We lose a lot suddenly and gradually. Physical abilities.
Ability to remember and recall things.
We spend more time at doctors offices than at the pool.
Our car keys can get taken away.
We aren’t able to get around the house without a walker.
Still, we’re not sure we want to talk about it or read about it because it sounds depressing.
Who wants to talk about nursing homes? Or funeral plans?
It’s kind of depressing.
And, if you’re like me, you may be much more afraid of the process than the fact of it.
I'm not afraid of being dead so much as I am afraid of the dying.
still it's a fact of life.
My physician used to tell me the most deadly STD is conception.
Think about that for a second.
So we begin 8 weeks or so considering important topics relating to life and spirituality using one of my favorite programs, OnBeing--which “opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”
And our first topic: the new old age--we’ll talk about less depressing topics in future weeks :).
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten."
As we consider the new old age, think about this passage from Mark of Jesus and disciples voyaging in a boat from one shore to another, as a metaphor for the new old age.
The voyage that most of us will take or are taking either as caregivers in some form or our own voyage through aging. The storms will come. The waves will crash in. People around us will scramble, There will be times of fear. And it may seem like Jesus is sleeping. But there are also times of calm, peace, and the deep deep comfort of God’s presence.
Do you see what I’m trying to do here?
Jane Gross found herself in the role of primary caregiver for her mother, with whom she had had a strained relationship.
Ms. Gross’ brother, even though he had the better relationship with their mother, wasn’t up to the task.
She found her interactions with her brother during this period so often “kicked up all the dust of childhood.” Everybody sort of becomes who they were when they were 10--
all the fights ultimately boiled down to some version of Mommy loved you more than she loved me.
For most families it can be helpful to figure out who in the family is most comfortable being in the role of caregiver...and for family members to be honest about their responsibilities.
If no family member is willing or available to step into that role, it is okay for friends or professionals to become the caregivers. We always think that taking care of someone is the job of family, but the reality is that not everyone has a family member they can count on. The role of friend or professional is perfectly fine.
As she faced becoming the caregiver for her mother, Jane Gross says,
“In no way did I race to the loving caregiver's role with an open heart.
I sort of weighed in my mind what seemed to me like the lesser of two evils.
Was I going to do this because it was the right thing to do, or was I going to bail and feel guilty for the rest of my life? I decided, do it and do it right.”
At first she was completely caught up in the logistical aspects of things:
what does Medicare cover?
how does assisted living work?
do I hire a home health aide from an agency or the friend of a friend?
She found the practical parts overwhelming.
Reality set in of the changing nature of her relationship with her mother when Ms. Gross’ mother rattled off to her a grocery list that included diapers.
“I need Sweet'N Low and I need diapers and I need oatmeal.”
“Terribly matter-of-factly”, she recalled.
She found she was becoming in a way, her mother’s mother.
What happens when we become a parent of a parent, or a parent of a sibling?
Or a child of yours is becoming some what of a parent for you?
It never really happens of course, but, “you increasingly get closer to that place, but as long as the person you’re caring for is cognitively intact, part of the trick is taking over enough but not humiliating them.”
In her memoir Jane Gross writes:
“I sprinted when I should have cautiously watched my step, rushed when I should have ruminated, barked orders when I should have discussed things with my mother.
I heard what I wanted to hear, not what doctors or directors of long-term care facilities were actually telling me.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? If it does, slow down.
Get your bearings. You can't bulldoze your way through this like a work project. Still, you can take comfort in knowing that this precipitating crisis, for many of us, is the hardest part, because you probably still think you can make it right, that you can stop the clock.
“It takes a while to learn that some decisions are far more important than others; some things are actually in your hands and some not. What is vital, and well within your control, is being present in a consoling way and respectful enough to bear witness to the inevitable.
This, too, is about slowing down. At first, it's hard to walk at a snail's pace beside your mother or father when they can no longer keep up, at least without impatiently rolling your eyes or to kneel at their level when they're in a wheelchair.
But the pace and the vantage become more natural and annoyance softens into tenderness if you let it.”
Among the questions Ms. Gross asks as she has considered this new old age:
- why there is such apprehension about nursing homes?
Maybe because of social pressures or because of money, we do a lot of things during the aging process to keep loved ones from winding up in nursing homes because, somehow or other, we believe that there's no worse thing that you can possibly do.
On the other hand, in a good nursing home, there can be much needed psychological support, social support, and spiritual support.
Personally speaking, one grandfather outlived my grandmother.
He later moved into a nursing home and was one of few eligible bachelors.
I was in college at the time and he was going out on so many more dates than I was!
He eventually remarried at the age of 85, an 80 year old, and they had a wonderful relationship.
So another thing we may find, this new old age may force us to create new kinds of community, even new families that will take us all the way through to the end of our lives.
Come on ladies: it may be you and your girl-friends going off to inhabit some kind of island one day!
Your church family may take on a new role for you.
It’s beautiful for me to see how this church community takes on such a vital role of creating new communities and families during this period of the new old age for many of the members.
Finally, Jane Gross says, if there's any advantage at all to this long, slow dying,
there is now a lot of time to get things right that you didn't get right earlier.
It can really be a time when a certain kind of repair of relationship is possible, unless you're fortunate enough to not have a need for any repair work to be done in any of your relationships!
“My mother told me I looked pretty for the first time in my life when she could barely speak anymore.
She told me she loved me for the first time in my life on an alphabet board....
Jane Gross writes: “I keep saying that this experience can become something other than desperate and bleak, if you let it. It really is a choice. We all know grown children who have bolted when the moment arrived. But imagining running away doesn't make you a bad person. I fantasized, [when] facing another day of exhaustion, about pointing the car west and driving, driving, driving. I'm glad that I didn't, because instead I learned what I was made of; I found my better self. I found my mother. I found my brother. But all of that came later.”
Now, let us listen to the gospel story again from Mark in light of this new old age reality. How is Jesus present with you now matter where you are in your voyage:
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
Let us pray:
Support us, Lord, all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done; then Lord, in your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last. Amen.