By The Rev Helen W. Appelberg, D.Min.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “positive aging?” Some might ask, “Do you want me to get excited about living longer to have a whole new set of choices thrown at me about how and where to live my life?” Others would question, “How can you use the word ‘positive’ when living longer means that my opportunities are shrinking?” How do you feel, do you consider an extended life a gift, or a burden and a time of decline?
In the book “Aging as a Spiritual Journey,” author Eugene Bianchi talks about the very nature of aging as a time of spiritual growth and discovery. Seniors are a community’s greatest source of wisdom, history (oral or written), creative leadership and inspiration. When seniors believe this, they can live their lives with intention and commitment.
Unfortunately, what hinders many seniors from embracing aging are the negative images of ageism that have been grafted into our minds. Fitting very comfortably into the senior category, I can see first-hand that a responsibility of this age group is to dispel this ageism by divesting ourselves of our own negative attitudes. It is time for us to take pride in our years; we need to paint our portraits as “can-do” people, not the feeble fading into the sunset. I’ve learned that the downward physical slope of life can become an upward spiritual ascent.
Spiritual development isn’t solely aimed at religious goals set out in conventional ways, but is a broader concept of growth in wisdom, creativity, prayer and service. I believe that in our aging we begin to pay more attention to our inner life and our relationships, and discover the deep joy of serving others.
I recently read a passage written by a man who was facing his aging. He said, “I may be whistling in the dark, but I don’t intend to get old. I intend to stay alive my whole life, my mother and dad did, they were engaged in life….” Staying engaged is to pay attention, to stay in the present and to live each day to the fullest. Many obstacles keep this from happening, but two factors have the power to restore our hope and energy. They are forgiveness and gratitude.
Forgiveness is the work of the soul and when we do that, it becomes one of the greatest gifts of freedom and joy. Gratitude is remembering to be thankful and the willingness to let the simplest moments become the greatest joy. Adopting these behaviors can extend your years, spreading smiles where there were tears, and gratitude can destroy fear and turn trembling into trust and unbelief into hope.
The myths of aging are slowly being debunked through scientific evidence and through the experience of our own aging and that of others. Many are coming to realize the tremendous potential for creative aging, which is possible whether we are running in marathons or confined to a wheelchair. We need to give this aging process our best effort, joyfully and consistently.
The Rev. Helen Appelberg is a visiting scholar at the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
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