Life Begins at 80

What is a person—in this case, the author—to do when she has reached the age of 75 but is informed by her doctor that she may live another 15 years or longer? She may have completed the biblical life span, but faces the prospect of additional years to be lived out in pain and with the vivid awareness of declining powers and growing challenges. In this modern age of improved medication and lengthening life expectancy, she has plenty of company. Erik Erikson, who had famously defined the seven ages of life, realized well before his death that he had outlived his own categories. Erikson, the author tells us, took up the challenge by writing and speaking about these later years as “new and adventurous territory.”

Emilie Griffin, a prolific author of books on Christian spirituality, has followed Erikson’s lead in this latest volume. Griffin, who has been suffering from painful rheumatoid arthritis for years, acknowledges the need to recalibrate our understanding of aging. Even so, she admits that she’s not so much plumbing the problems of old age, even less seeking an answer to the mystery of decline and death, as asking “how Christian faith informs life’s journey, especially in the later years.” Her own experience, together with that of all the others she draws on in this short volume, witnesses to the possibility that what is so boldly proclaimed in Jeremiah 17 might be true: “The righteous person is like a tree planted by living water, whose leaves stay green.” Yes, leaves can remain green, even in advanced years, the author declares.

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There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, Griffin knows. Old age brings infirmity, the loss of those powers on which we have relied for years, as well as an overall decline in health. But the steady advance of pain in the joints and everywhere else is only the half of it; even worse at times is the loss of friends to the ravages of death. This, of course, raises the fearful question the aged are forced to confront at every funeral they attend, “Can I be far behind?”

Loss and diminishment, then, would seem to be the hallmarks of old age. The best we can hope for is to surrender graciously what we have once enjoyed.

Or is it? There must be something to be gained as old age robs us of our eyesight, our bodily strength and the self-esteem and those other parts of our psyche that depend on this. The conventional answers, as advanced in Cicero’s tract on old age (“De Senectute”) and other ancient texts, are detachment, freedom from meretricious desires and wisdom. To this traditional argument the author adds the results of a British psychology professor’s recent research, cited in The New York Times, indicating that “we can expect to be happier in our early 80s than we were in our 20s.”

In the end, though, the author is not arguing that the blessings of old age more than offset the drawbacks, even if some of her sources suggest as much. The titles of her chapters—”Pushing Past the Pain,” “Grief, Loss and Anger,” and “Resetting Goals and Picking Up the Pieces”—point to a less euphoric outlook. Age is a precursor of death, and the latter has never had much to recommend it. She’s just offering us wisdom on how to survive and flourish in a period that smells of decline.

Throughout the book she summons a host of witnesses that point the way. The famed artists Renoir and Matisse, both of whom suffered from the same debilitating rheumatoid arthritis as the author, continued their pursuit of beauty despite the affliction that deformed their hands. Peter Drucker, the founder of modern management theory, retained his child-like fascination with life to the very end of his own. Nelson Mandela, Billy Graham and his wife Ruth, and two cardinals of the church, John Henry Newman and Avery Dulles, did much more than battle old age to a draw. Distilling the experience of the many decades they had lived, they made significant contributions to the world in their later years.

Griffin’s book, then, does not offer a grand argument on aging and holiness. The volume, like life itself, is a pastiche of experiences, some good and some bad, but all sustained by faith and good humor. Each chapter is more an exhortatory homily than an essay, each packed with real life examples, each followed by questions to stimulate reflection and a prayer.

At bottom, the defining feature of old age is a gradual surrender of our human powers that prepares us and summons us to the final surrender of life itself. Spiritual growth can occur during this time of diminishment and loss, of course, but only on condition that we have the resources to make the best of a difficult time. The author’s counsel here may help us detect some of the hidden graces of old age, but for the most part it merely offers us guidance on how to keep those leaves fresh and green. We are not called to roll back the ravages of age, but to keep walking, as Abraham and Sarah did, until the very end of our life’s journey.

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Bruce Snowden
5 years 8 months ago
What should a “youngster” of 75 do when MDs say she has 15 more years to go? Jump for joy as the Apostles did on Pentecost! I mean allow the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Joy to light up her life even more, fanning its all-consuming Flame, even if at times it must be with the Shredded Fan of negative emotion causing “tears” whichever shape they may take. Then she will happily realize that the Flame of the Spirit no matter how it flares, is water-repellant and tends to grow brighter in the agonizing swirls of, “Father, if be possible let this cup pass me by.” And when that “special day” comes, in his own way and in his own time, may it be not so much a time of perpetual rest, but of perpetual discovery! I’m going to be 82 this year, so based on, Father Hezel’s review, I’m two years old and as the restaurant with the Golden Arches says, “I’m lik’n it!” Incidentally dem thar “Golden Arches” fit right into the needs of a two year old youngster like me, having been designed to replicate the curvature of a woman’s breasts, designed by a psychologist I was told, to subliminally attract children, the young and all who associate warmth and security to the maternal feedings! If he walked around today I can just imagine the Boy Jesus tugging at his Mom’s skirt as they pass a McDonald’s saying, “Mom, may I have a Big Mac?” And Mary saying to her husband, “Joseph let’s stop, dear. Our boy is hungry!” Dad responds smilingly, “Yeah, he always is!” Having dabbled in that little “flight of fancy” getting back now to starker reality, I must admit there is for me some cognitive decline, if flawed memory is a sign. If that’s true, I’ve been cognitively challenged all my life, as my memory has always been less than retentive! Medicines? Yes, many kinds so that between my wife and I we could probably open our own pharmacy! Biologically, yes, there has been decline, as skeletal and muscular connections creak a lot! Pain? Yes, lots of it which is sometimes handled in the “Catholic way” – I “offer it up!” Mechanical parts like an old car, do need retuning and I walk with a cane because I’m not able – just love puns! St. Francis of Assisi referred to his body as “Brother Ass” and at life’s end apologized to it for having treated it so badly. In line with the “Little Poor Man’s” assessment, maybe I can say even though “Life Begins At 80,” “Brother Ass” does kick up its heels rebelliously now! Come to think of it, it always has in one way or the other! Conclusively getting back to the article, negatives have something positive about them. I do not have “a less euphoric outlook,” and “diminishment” is O.K and its “smell of decline” is not offensive. For me, rooted in Faith, “the best is yet to come,” so a slowed down gait, gray hair and creaky parts and pain are expected. Psychologically? I guess I’m reasonably sane! Spiritually, things have gotten much better realizing smartly that for God “light and darkness are the same,” so no matter the “lighting” or “lack of it” He’s there. As St. Paul reminds us old timers, “When we are weak, then we are strong!” Holy Scripture can be so applicable. And as George Burns who lived to be 100 said, “We all have to GET old, but we don’t have to BE old!” And that’s the Gospel Truth! Practice it and life takes on a buoyancy otherwise unobtainable. So, if you have 15 more to go, praise the Lord!

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