Close your eyes and think of yourself twenty years older. Forty years older. What do you see?
Does the thought of growing old scare you?
Do you see wheelchairs, canes, nursing homes? How about hearing aides, or severe memory loss? These are things we often assume are inevitable.
We assume incorrectly.
Old age is not a punishment or sentence. It’s not an issue of doom. Our later stages of life can be times where we thrive, and the reality is that we have more control over how we age than we think. Studies show that most of the quality of life issues in old age have more to do with how we live in the years leading up to old age – things like our activity level, how we eat, and our engagement in life. These issues are not caused by old age itself.
But why do these issues seem more prevalent when we are older?
You could say it’s an accumulation of our lifestyle choices. In a lot of ways, it’s about life catching up to us. David put it well when he said “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” God created our bodies to be able to overcome our poor eating and lifestyle habits, and all the dumb things we do to ourselves. The aging process leads to our cells slowing the pace at which they regenerate. There may even be a limit to how many times a cell can duplicate itself. Eventually, we cannot as easily overcome things, lifestyle related chronic diseases and issues are better able to take over, and all those unhealthy patters are able to catch up.
This can be both bad news and good news.
The ability for lifestyle issues to take over is obviously the bad news. The good news is we have more control over this than we realize. If there are fewer things we force our bodies to overcome, if there are fewer things to catch up to us, we are in a better position to age well. It’s that simple and is true of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
This is known as Successful Aging.
It’s a term developed from long term studies in the 80’s and 90’s, most notably by Jack Rowe and Robert Kahn. They showed that lifestyle had more to do with how well we aged than genetics. They identified three factors found related to successful aging.
- Avoiding disease – healthy diet and activity make a tremendous difference in avoiding the chronic issues that are often associated with older age.
- Continuing activity. Our bodies need to keep moving.
- Engagement. Keeping mentally and socially engaged, having a sense of purpose.
There have been further studies that have noted that faith and spirituality are important enough factors to qualify as a fourth factor.
The church is in a great position to make a difference in helping people age successfully
There are models where the successful aging concepts have converted into practical steps that have been implemented in senior communities. We’ve learned through these models that it is never too late to start, that even in older life these factors can help improve how one ages.
While this works in living communities, what about those who age in place?
If this works later in life, how much more impact would there be if people were encouraged to implement these factors in their life at an earlier age?
The community living aspect in these models allowed changes to be made on scale. They could reach several people already together in a community. If only there were a community where many of those who were aging in place were regularly involved, and where people of multiple generations could benefit from improved lifestyle choices.
You know where I’m going with that one.
Probably the largest concentration of older adults outside living communities would be in religious communities. On top of that, there is such a broad multi-generational demographic within the church that it may be that the church has the greatest opportunity to impact successful aging not only to the elderly but to all generations.
The church has significant challenges to overcome when promoting successful aging
Ageism has a broad and deep footprint in the church. It starts with leaders who often see age as a problem to overcome. There is ageism that ignored older adults in favor of catering to youth. A bigger challenge though is the ageism within people’s’ perception of themselves. The World Health Organization has stated that ageism is a major health issue, as it impacts how people seek and get medical care. If a person has a negative view of their own aging or believes that issues are inevitable, they can surrender to the thought that it doesn’t make a difference anyway.
How does ageism show up in our own leadership? Is age usually framed in a negative way? Do we use phrases like “young at heart” which, while unintended, communicates that youth is preferable to old age? We need to closely examine our own attitudes and avoid communicating age in a negative context.
Lack of interest.
A number of leaders related that they are struggling to get involvement in their efforts when it relates to age. One told me that the Boomers just don’t want to think about growing old. We see this in the decline of older adult ministries – people don’t want to be part of anything associated with old age.
One thought here is that if most of the causes of later life challenges are age-agnostic (more related to how we live than to aging itself), maybe our approach would be more effective if it is age-agnostic. Maybe we can frame it more about how we live now than about old age. Good lifestyle and engagement habits have an impact on all phases of life, it’s just that oh, by the way, it also has this long term benefit.
The attitude that health and lifestyle promotion isn’t appropriate in the church
There can be tremendous resistance because of the belief that this isn’t really part of what the church should do. I do agree that there is a danger in the self-focused approach that I see too often in ministry and outreach, but I would respond that this goes beyond self interest. We have a responsibility to take care of what God has given us. More than that, it comes down to how we each have a purpose. A major part of that purpose is to be part of the community. Scripture makes clear that all parts of the body of Christ are essential. The better we take care of ourselves, the better and more effectively we can make an impact in and out of the church. To that extent, I believe that stewardship of our physical body is a sacred responsibility.
Making a difference.
The very nature of what the church is gives us a leg up on addressing the engagement and spiritual dimensions of successful aging. Discipleship and koinonia fellowship, when given the emphasis they should, go a long way towards giving everyone a sense of purpose. They help people stay mentally and emotionally engaged in their own lives and those of others. Obviously, we always have to evaluate whether we are on target in these areas in our ministries.
As to preventing disease and helping people get and stay active, what can we do there? Some denominations have a parish nurse program. One thing to keep in mind is that the program is not tied strictly to age, which fits the age-agnostic approach I mentioned earlier. How can we encourage healthier eating? How can we spur more activity, especially in ways that are inclusive, not limited to the athletic? Walking and cycling groups are often used. Can we integrate lifestyle into our small groups? I’d love to hear things that people are doing to promote healthier lifestyles.
Maybe the greatest thing we can do is to flip the script on how we see old age. Start painting it with the positives. Are you aware of the U-Curve of happiness? Studies show that older adults are happier than at any time of their adult lives. Emphasize the experience and wisdome that comes over the years. Emphasize where people can and do make a difference rather than always associate the negative with old age. Changes in attitude in what it means to be old can make a huge difference in how well we age.
What are things either you have practiced in your ministry or that you have seen others practice that have helped promote a healthier lifestyle within the church?