Billy Holland – Published 11/19/18

Growing older is a subject that most of us would rather not talk about. When we are young and filled with a full tank of hormones, we poke fun at the effects of aging and pity all those old people who are slow and always in the way. We perceive they are infected with natural deterioration as we arrogantly convince ourselves this terrible condition will never happen to us. As we continue in our youthful years of strength and enthusiasm, we persuade our brain to believe that we carry some type of infallible gene pool that allows us to possess an anti-aging antidote. We are convinced our genetic superiority will protect and save us from ever needing a nursing home, mortician, or a grave. However, this invincible attitude slowly dissipates over time and eventually we begin to respect the power of deception while coming to the conclusion that maybe we are just as vulnerable and fallible as everyone else. There are no perfect strands of DNA and somewhere among the spirals there are a couple of weak links. These abnormalities have no choice but develop into our identity and then we are faced to spend the rest of our life trying to deal with them. Yes, we are trapped within the confines of progressive aging but as my wife reminds me, there is only one other alternative. Growing older is like a train running down the track and no matter how many botox injections, vitamins, or hair plugs, we cannot stop the reality of our mortality. There is nothing wrong with trying to look young and we agree that dieting and exercise would surely be a healthy and positive lifestyle but the hourglass only contains so much sand. I believe the personal relationship with our creator is the most important priority of this temporary pilgrimage and is where we find our peace in this life and hope for the next.

I’ve listened to the elderly and have discovered that being poor or sick is not necessarily their worst fear. The most common anxiety of aging is the terror of dying. Morphine is commonly used at the end of life and helps make our transition more comfortable. I’ve often wondered after reading the historical accounts of those who were brutally martyred because of their faith in God if all of us Christians would be as brave in the presence of a painful death? We know that many people can sense when they are dying and some believe that a swift suicide would be much better than to suffer and be a burden. I’m reminded of the Aokigahara forest in Japan which is notoriously called “The Suicide Forest.” Untold visitors have chosen this haunted sanctuary for their final resting place as they walk in with no intention of ever walking back out. 13.5 square miles of foliage so dense that it is known as the Sea of Trees, the forest absorbs and serves as a more dignified way of escape and a portal to the next realm. Every individual has their own reasons for entering and I would speculate that the independence to pass away in simplicity and privacy are important factors. Whatever the case, we hate the thought of someone being obligated to take care of us and in most cases, we would rather slip away and disappear if it were possible. When it comes to celebrating our departure, you would think that every child of God would be excited to leave this earth and run into the arms of God especially since the next life has been clearly explained, however, this is not always the case. In fact, I’ve spoken to many devout Christians who seem to become more nervous and unsure of their future the longer they live. Loretta Lynn sang, “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die” which bluntly declared what we were thinking all along but were too embarrassed to admit it. Yes, we are to have faith in His amazing grace but at the same time, He created us with a natural fighting instinct to live. Why do we hold on with our fingertips to keep from falling, why do we grab a life preserver when we are sinking into the sea, and why do we choose to have surgeries, or take medicine? Because we do not want to die!

My mother has now entered into the eighth decade of her life and up to this point she has been blessed with good health. My father passed away two years ago at the age of seventy-eight and bravely battled a serious kidney disease during the last twenty-five years of his life. My parents have been faithful Christians since I can remember and we have enjoyed many thought-provoking conversations about God and the interesting topics mentioned throughout the Bible. We’ve also discussed dying and the glories awaiting for us in heaven but lately she has been a little worried and nervous about leaving this world. We agree the best way to check out of this temporary existence is to pass away in our sleep but we also know that life does not always work out like we planned. The thought of going to a nursing home gives us a terrible feeling of dread and depression and for many individuals who are advancing closer to the end of our earthly journey, these are not exactly joyful or happy thoughts. Nevertheless, this is a subject that we need to embrace. Why? Because, it’s reality and it’s much better to be prepared and equipped for what is coming than to be surprised, shocked, overwhelmed and scared when it arrives. I’ve been a volunteer chaplain in a very good healthcare facility and had the opportunity to carefully watch how the staff interacted with the patients and I can honestly say that over time there develops a deep bond of genuine love and concern. There is only so much that caregivers can do in these difficult situations and I respect all those who choose to work in this field. To observe the tenderness and patience needed with an Alzheimer resident will bring tears to your eyes. Kindness and compassion are very comforting to those who are in need and I know that many who struggle with physical and mental health issues sincerely appreciate someone who cares.

Some will say that growing older is not all negative especially in the light of looking forward to the day when they can retire. We all envision a day where we can do whatever we want with no time restraints or schedules. Freed from the urgent striving that marks the summer and fall of our adulthood, one would think that the elderly would have time to slow down and indulge the pleasures of mind and body that do not require the reflexes and strength that is not what it used to be. Absent in all this anxiety about aging is the consideration that growing older (even though it has a few good points), also includes new problems and challenges that lets out some of the air from our wonderful visions of paradise and brings us back to the reality that there is no such thing as heaven on earth. Older people simply put cannot do what they used to do. Cleaning house, cooking, laundry, driving, and taking care of the yard are areas that many older people struggle and often need to pay for services. For those on limited incomes, these are unexpected expenses. There is also maintenance on vehicles, home repairs, appliances, heating and air, painting, raking leaves, trimming trees, power washing, and the list goes on and on. This is why many elderly couples and individuals sell their homes and farms and move into a single story condo or an apartment as steps are often a problem. A word of wisdom is that we will always be faced with aggravations and difficulties no matter our financial condition.

Another catch with retirement is along with our need to have the patience of Job, we end up exchanging at least fifty or sixty years of our journey to pay for this well-deserved milestone. We forget that “Time Is My Enemy” and this great price we spend waiting for all of our ducks to fall in line. We think that if we can crawl on our hands and knees to retirement and still feel good, we have received nothing less than a miracle from God’s hand – and we are correct. In our productive years, we work hard like a mule that is focused on the carrot that is dangling before us all the while hoping that eventually we will reach our destination before we fall down and die from exhaustion. The problem is that many of us put living in the “now” on hold because we are too busy focusing on crossing the finish line “then.” For example, it’s great to save money, but can you imagine denying yourself and your family while you are young and then dying without ever having or doing what you desired. So, after we finally make it to retirement, realistically we have a possible fifteen or twenty-year “window” of possible independence. Granted that our health cooperates, we are now grateful every morning when our eyes open, our mind is working, we can go to the bathroom by ourselves and we can still walk. In other words, waking up means we made it through the night and have the blessing of one more check on the calendar. I’ve gratefully already arrived at this special place and even though it is relaxing at times, it’s not exactly the island of utopia I had imagined. I have intentionally kept myself busy and volunteered with several organizations as I believe isolation can have a negative effect on our perception. Interaction with others and concentrating on work that is important and constructive help us maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, I’m also amazed at how little time I have to myself. Retirement certainly does not mean we can lay on the couch and become a king or queen where everyone serves us day and night. There are still schedules, deadlines, appointments, responsibilities, demands, and hard work to the point where it seems I am busier now than ever in my life.

From our earliest years, we are dissatisfied with our age. When we are children we envy the freedom of adults to manage their own lives. As teenagers, we become irritated at the restrictions imposed on us as we seek autonomy and its common when treated unfairly to become rebellious. Those of us who make the normal transition to adulthood usually, but not always, in our early twenties are still confronted with the tasks of earning a living and finding someone we will still love in our thirties and beyond. Like we said earlier, when we reach our forties and fifties, we start dreaming of our retirement but realize this is not going to be easy. Happiness and financial security in our winter or golden years does not just fall out of the sky but rather takes meticulous planning and personal discipline. This is also the time when we begin to worry about aging and the need to buy cemetery plots and make funeral arrangements. Of course, many do not want to think about such things because they are convinced they have plenty of time and will take care of these details many more years down the road. Unfortunately, I have witnessed the tragedy of friends that have retired and passed away in their fifties who made no plans for their death. Luke chapter 12 tells the story of a man who stores up food for many years and decides that he can relax and has nothing to worry about. However, God said the man was being presumptuous and foolish as he had no idea that he was going to die that night.

Over the years, I’ve spoken with individuals that were in their eighties and nineties who referred to others as being “old” as if they did not realize they were also a part of the same group. I’ve also noticed that many elderly people who live in medical care facilities, unfortunately, spend a lot of time alone with very few visitors. Why is this? One reason is that friends and even family members are very uncomfortable to be in the presence of a loved one who is physically sick and or mentally unable to think, communicate, or function normally. Actually, it’s very common for people to avoid nursing homes, hospitals, and cemeteries because these places haunt us and awaken the secrets of our soul as we ponder about our own inevitable decline. Laying down our denial and facing our mortality are fighting words for those who refuse to accept or retain enthusiasm in the future in which they might not participate. The idea is to stay away from anything that reminds us of the end of our life, (out of sight – out of mind) and hopefully we can keep ourselves distracted forever. Another reason is that many people have a tendency to devalue the status of the elderly unless there is a possibility for personal gain. If the person is poor and has already been stripped of their earthly possessions, everyone now sees them as a burden with little value. If they still maintain their material wealth, the attitude is different and presents an opportunity to make an investment that might pay off significantly when the patient finally passes away. I have sat with patients in nursing homes and their rooms had no pictures or greeting cards sitting around. When asking staff members about visitors they replied that no one can remember the last time anyone has been there. We realize these are “death row” holding chambers where the elderly are waiting for the next life but they are still alive and deserve our respect for the life they lived.

When I encounter older men who sit on the side of their bed and ask if I can help pull their sweatpants up over their diapers, it makes me think about how life is a circle. We start off helpless and depend on someone to feed us and change us and then at the end of our life our needs are the same. I listen to their stories of high school, college athletic triumphs, business adventures or their war stories and the theme is always the same: I wasn’t always like this. Many of them have serious health problems but the recollections are never bitter, always wistful, as if what they are now, an old man struggling through the torture of living in a hospital bed, is a rebuke to what they were once and might have been had they not become weak and unable to take care of themselves. When talking about our bodies growing weaker, our attention is usually focused on cancer, diabetes, heart issues, strokes, etc… but one of the most devastating problems beyond our physical malfunctions is the failing mind. Every year in the U.S. there are ten million new cases of Dementia and Alzheimer’s and we can agree this condition is not a good quality of life when we do not have mental clarity. How tormenting to be held incarcerated in our own body. My grandmother suffered dementia in her last year and it broke my heart that when I would come to see her, she did not know who I was.

The subtext of these conversations is that many of us will eventually lose what we celebrate in this culture with things like energy, vision, physical attractiveness, sexual virility, a sense of possibilities, mental clarity, and the capacity to change the future. People instinctively prefer the freedom of choice to the dead weight of habit and the miserable harness of limited control. One of the major components of happiness is something to look forward to and allow me to say that in the boring confines of a nursing home the only thing to look forward to is someone coming to visit. As the distance between us and our life expectancy narrows, it’s hard not to be discouraged because if we live long enough this is exactly where we are heading. By the way, this explains the higher incidence of sadness and depression in this age group. There are exceptions where a lucky few can live at home with around-the-clock care but even then, there will come a day where we will probably need a higher level of intensive medical care. In the words of Tennyson, “We are not now that strength that in old days moved earth and heaven.”

Some may say the implicit “contract” that governs our lives was never properly explained to us but the truth is we just didn’t want to read it. As it is with all important documents, there is always a fine print and in this case, it said, “If you are fortunate enough to grow old, you will be stereotyped and marginalized by the society you live in, even by your own children. You will gradually become slow of thought and movement and have to cope with a body which will break down, deteriorate and fail to perform. You will experience unspeakable losses which might include forgetting those around you, your present along with your past, and eventually the loss of yourself.” Perhaps if we could have studied this contract often and more carefully, it might have eased the pain of our future disappointment. Maybe it could have softened our despair and helped us sympathize with our fate. Who knows, our understanding might have strengthened our faith and equipped us to do a better job of inspiring those who must follow us on this well-worn path. Instead, it appears we are more inclined to act surprised and offended by what seems to be a rebuke to our arrogant assumption that we are special and do not deserve this sentence. On his death-bed, the novelist William Saroyan supposedly said, “Everybody has got to die, but I always believed that an exception would be made in my case.” Perhaps this unconscious attitude allows us to avoid what could otherwise be a morbid and immobilizing infatuation with our mortality. Whatever we believe about our purpose and why we are here, we seem to take much satisfaction from what we create but for most of us, this honor resides in the genetic potential within our children and their children. A legacy is not always producing an emotional object, building kingdoms, achievements, or accomplishments but rather our hope for those we love.

Few of us have a talent that provides real creative satisfaction and even then the harsh reality is that little of what we do lives on after us. Most of our work can be done as well or even better by others so in the end our absence is not missed. Those who have chosen occupations in which we serve others like ministers and waitresses, for example, believe that our efforts have somehow improved the lives of a few of the people we have encountered. We have heard people talk about making a difference in this world but it is not overly modest to believe that the number of human beings who are blessed because of us is small and that we will only live on in a few hearts beyond those who loved us. When they are gone, so, finally, are we. Since I am in the latter stages of my journey when one contemplates their impact on the world, I comfort myself that relatively few, therefore, are worse for having met me, but perhaps I am, even now, giving myself the benefit of the doubt. So, if we elect to take an honest inventory of our conscience as we near the end, perhaps humility can co-exist with a sense of contentment. God’s grace must be first and foremost and then perhaps it is enough to have loved those we could, done as little harm as possible, and grown old with enough courage to give hope to (or at least amuse) the small audience who cared enough about us to pay attention.

We certainly can trust scriptures like, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” and this gives us great comfort but to be honest we have not literally seen heaven or God Himself for that matter. I know this is what faith is all about but it also does not diminish our human weakness and our inability to believe. Remember Thomas did not believe either and I have always felt sorry for him because I probably would have felt the same way. I can also identify with Peter as denying Christ is our natural instinct when we are afraid. I do not care what anyone says about being joyful on our deathbed or throwing a party as we take our last breath, it’s normal to be scared and unsure of the unknown. How can it be easy to completely trust God all the while rebuking the devil and his lies of negativity and doubt as we peacefully transition through the dying process? Have you ever been in a strange place in the middle of the night when it was pitch black? It’s easy to shout the victory when we can see clearly and are surrounded by those who believe but it’s different when we’re alone without someone to hold our hand. I love this short insight from Victor Hugo, “Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart; I breathe at this hour the fragrance of the lilacs, the violets, and the roses, as at twenty years ago. The nearer I approach the end, the clearer I hear around me the immortal symphonies of the worlds which invite me.”

At 87, my friend Bill Wilson looked at me with sleepy eyes and quietly said I am tired. He went on to say that you would think a person who is confined to a hospital bed and a wheelchair 24 hours a day would not feel exhausted – but they are. It seems that not being able to do anything or go anywhere wears us out just as much or even more if we had worked all day. The boredom, the monotony of routine, and the mental anguish of knowing we are an invalid weigh heavy on our psyche. In a nursing home, there is no one to share our personal feelings with. Sure we can cry, but who sees and cares besides God. We are left alone with our memories and even these precious treasures begin to fade away like the morning dew when the sun comes up. Bill has been in the facility four years and since day one he has told me he will only be staying for a few weeks. He has arthritis so bad in his legs that he cannot move them without excruciating pain. His wife lives with his oldest son and they talk on the phone every day. He is a college grad, married when he was 25, a social worker by profession, was a song leader in his church, and had a blessed life. Now he reads and watches television and takes a lot of naps. He’s smart and witty, but what else can he do but dream about leaving and being united with his wife of 62 years? I spoke of prayer and he agreed this was very important and then he asked if I would pray. He said he was thankful to be able to use his arms and still feed himself. He stopped going to the cafeteria because he could not bear to see the residents spilling food all over themselves and to watch others being fed like a helpless baby.

There are certain aspects that I miss from my youth. The strength and endurance to work hard, the boundless energy and vitality. I cannot see like I used to, I get winded pretty easy and sometimes I cannot remember peoples names. I love to take naps and when I watch Jeopardy, the answers are given before I can even think. Then there are the parts I wish I could forget. I realize it does no good to regret my mistakes but I cannot help but think about what could have been. I recall being more occupied with the present than concerned with the future and I can only imagine how much more I could have done if I knew then what I know now. The past is gone and even if I were given a do-over, I would probably make more of a mess than I did the first time. I definitely know that God and His angels have intervened in my life on many occasions and deserve all the credit for me being here today. All in all, even without winning the lottery, I’m happy with where I am in my journey. We dream of all the things we could do with large amounts of money but then we snap back into the real world and know the most important purpose in our life is our personal relationship with God. As the scripture says in Matthew chapter 16, “For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? I am not rich by any means but I am also not poor and there again is the compassionate and amazing grace of God. One piece of wisdom I have collected is to not put off until tomorrow what we can do today because we are not sure how many tomorrows we will have. If you want a big juicy steak today for heavens sakes go eat one. If you plan to help someone or you have a desire to say or give them something, do not fall into the someday excuse. If you feel a burden to write a letter, make a call, invite someone to dinner, or ask someone to forgive you for something you did or said – do it today.

I have a wonderful wife whom I adore and if not for her, my life would have been miserable and empty. I’ve had the amazing blessing to watch our two children grow into delightful and successful adults and I also love their spouses very much. I’ve had my share of disappointments and rejections but at the same time, I’ve had a number of astonishing grand life experiences. I was raised in a loving Christian home and always looked up to dad. It’s been two years since he passed and I really miss him a lot. In these last 2 years, I’ve really come to know my mom in a deeper way and I have really enjoyed her more than ever. I’ve had the opportunity to be creative and I’m proud of the gift God has given. I’ve books, songs, poetry, articles short stories, newspaper columns, and basically, I just love to write. I believe we all have something to share and are given talents to ultimately bring glory to God. I must include that if I have ever done or said anything that had eternal value, it was from Him. My friends have been very precious to me and I miss those who have passed on. I’m glad for the time these special friends gave me and it was truly an honor to know them. I wish all of these years had not flown by so fast. If only I could been more aware and enjoyed everything more along the way. We should try to be happy and worry less. To see the good in others and always pray for more love and patience. We only have one life and it’s up to us to become what God wants us to be. It’s not what is written on our tombstone or a flowery eulogy that identifies who we were, it’s how we lived and treated others that preach our own legacy.

As you and I face the prospects of growing old, we need to ask ourselves, what should I be doing now, however old I am, to prepare for a time when I cannot take care of myself. Along with the practical decisions which are very important is also the critical considerations of our spiritual life that speaks bluntly and boldly to the deepest recesses of our heart. Truth does not intend to be mean or cruel but desires to awaken us to the realities and possibilities of purpose. The fact is, you will be then what you are becoming now. If you are not becoming a person of faith and love now, you will not be a person of faith and love then. If you are a negative and grumpy person now, you will not suddenly become a positive and cheerful person then. If you are not learning, growing, praying and developing an intimate personal relationship with God today, unfortunately, you will also not have one then. We change when the agony and conviction to be transformed becomes greater than the apathy of staying the same. Charles Bancroft wrote this comforting poem, “God loves the aged. He gives them greater visions than the young: He puts words of wisdom on their tongue: And keeps His presence ever by their side, from dawn to dusk, and on through eventide. God helps the aged. Within their home, his spirit dwells: Their mellow hearts are touched like chiming bells: He calms their fears, then worries disappear because they know his help is always near. God keeps the aged. With hearts of gold, and silver tinted hair, and earnestness, and greater faith in prayer: He keeps them as a shepherd guards his sheep, til in his fold they gently fall asleep.”