Learning to Grow Old

by Dr. Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., director, ENCORE Ministry

Recently, when I was consulting with a local church in my role as director of ENCORE Ministry, I was approached by an older woman with a big smile on her face. She said that she was looking forward to my visit with leaders of the older adult ministry in her church. And then she said, “Now, someone can tell me how to grow old!”

Not only was this woman much older than myself, she was also clearly a very vibrant, active member of her church. Her mind was sharp and she was engaged and very involved as a leader in her church ministries. Yet, she was turning to me for a meaningful answer on how to grow old successfully?

I laughed heartily at her suggestion that I could tell her how to grow old and we continued with our meeting concerning the development of intentional ministry by, with, and for older adults in her church. Since then, I have given her invitation for insight some thought. And, while I don’t have a great deal of wisdom, longevity, or any profound thinking on this matter, I do have a few ideas.

It is helpful to keep in mind that successful aging among older adults will mean different things to different people. It is also important to keep in mind that there is no single, right way to age successfully. But I believe there are some key elements necessary for successful aging. Some of the more important factors include: health status (both physical and cognitive), material security, maintaining social contacts, openness to new ideas, caring about others, continuing learning, and spiritual maturity.

In many ways, the woman in the story above is an inspiring example of a person aging successfully. I thought of the words of Peter: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment. It should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (Peter 3:3-4 NIV)

Later, while talking with this woman following our meeting, I came to see that she had reasonably good health, financial resources, many friends, and a supportive family. But even more importantly, she had developed a growing faith. In spite of her many losses over the years, she had gained an abiding trust and quiet confidence in the Lord.

This woman’s search for successful aging is something shared by many. Most people want to age well. Yet most people, like many churches, have to re-frame aging. Our views of aging don’t necessarily fit the world we live in today. We need to re-imagine what it means to age and grow older. Attitude and coping skills are keys to successful aging:

  • How we feel, think, and act in whatever circumstances we find ourselves
  • How we face the challenges and difficulties we encounter in life
  • How we see ourselves fitting into our world and what purpose we may have

All of these are important ingredients to well-being as we age.

The church, too, can play a vital role in providing the necessary environment for persons to age successfully. Congregations should help older adults know that they are valued, respected, and needed in ministry. They should provide older adults with opportunities for fellowship, learning, support, and service. Congregations can help older adults find meaning and purpose in their later years while empowering them for service to the needs of the community and engaging them in spiritual growth and faith development. Finally, congregations should provide support services and resources for caregivers, widows/widowers, grandparents raising grandchildren, and the many other life activity needs of older adults in the congregation.

The question becomes: How is your congregation serving as an example for older adults to age well?

What are ways you and your congregation are intentional in helping older adults find meaning and purpose in the later years? How can you and your congregation create opportunities for older adults to continue learning and growing in their faith journey? We want to age well as we grow old and one thing is certain: we can’t age well in solitude. We need the support and the encouragement of one another.