Older adults have a lot to share — from surplus household goods to plenty of housekeeping and maintenance know-how. They also have plenty of spiritual wisdom to share.
That is among the messages of “Gleaning Wisdom from the Journey,” an April 25 presentation at Franciscan Village in Lemont by Margaret Garbacz, Franciscan Village’s director of mission integration and pastoral care, and Father Kurt Boras, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Lemont. Garbacz said older adults should remember that aging is a gift.
“Everyone is going to die,” she said. “Not everyone gets the opportunity to age, so it is a gift. And when we receive a gift, we have to look at how we can best make use of it.”
Part of that gift, Garbacz said, is understanding that people are not any of their many attributes: not their titles or achievements, not their appearance or their homes or the neighborhoods they live in. They are souls, and as St. Augustine said, they thirst for God.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, assistant professor of spirituality at Loyola University Chicago’s Institute for Pastoral Studies, said the spirituality of older adults is different from that of younger adults because their mission is different. Mature adults, he said, can act as “spiritual lighthouses” to help young people find their way.
Younger adults — those in the first half of life — are busy learning and doing and accumulating things, creating and building up their identities. Once they reach the second half of life, Fortin said, they begin to pare away things that are unnecessary as they come to understand who God has called them to become.
“It’s trying to make sense of the whole of life,” Fortin said. “You want to be faithful to who you are called to be. … Spirituality is the process of growing into who you are. It’s only late in life that you can come close to that.”
Sometimes that paring down is material, as older people move into smaller homes, he said. Sometimes it’s a paring down of responsibilities, or even of physical abilities.
“Older people are faced with the experience of limits,” Fortin said, including the fact that earthly life is limited. As they age, they can no longer avoid the idea that they will die and cross the threshold into eternal life. “That is an absolute limit. There is no way to avoid the experience of dying.”
The danger, he said, is that older people will give up too soon, decide to stop living before their physical death. Those who turn to God — to Jesus who suffered and died and was buried before transforming death into the portal to eternal life — find purpose, he said.
“Older people have a close connection with the God who suffers,” Fortin said. “He is there to give them life, to motivate them to choose life.”
The challenge is for all people to live to their potential, even as their time diminishes. “We need to be our true selves,” Fortin said. “Who can tell us who that is, if not the living God?”
As that is happening, Fortin said, mature adults can develop a spiritual depth and focus that most younger people do not have. They learn to dwell in silence, he said, to experience not loneliness but solitude.
“We all define and create the rooms of our inner apartments,” Fortin said. “Then we have to learn to live in those apartments. There is so much older people can teach us about that.”
Mature adults can, for example, help younger companions understand the effect their actions now will have on their long-term identity, he said, because they have experienced the breadth of life.
“Older people are often spiritual mentors and guides, even if it is informal,” Fortin said. That is a role that is ideal for grandparents rather than parents, who are simply too closely entwined with their children’s day-to-day lives.
Unfortunately, Boras said, he finds that many people who are middle-aged and younger want to avoid places like nursing homes and even senior housing developments because they are afraid.
“They think they will see people who are dying,” he said. “That’s not what I find here. When I come here, I find life.”
Boras, whose parish takes in Franciscan Village, said he benefits from his contact with the senior citizens who live there all the time.
“I’m really floored by the people in this community,” he said, “their wisdom about life, their questions … it’s all right there on their heart. They might not realize their wisdom, but they’ve assimilated it. They’ve learned the value of an active relationship with God and with one another.”
She sat in the passenger seat, pinning up her permed hair, fussing in the mirror. He was in the driver’s seat thumbing through a magazine. The year was 1949 and my grandparents were on a date in small-town Iowa.
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