The Gray Wave

By Mary Jo Pedersen, M.A.

Mary Jo spent 30 years in ministry to families and faith formation in the Archdiocese of Omaha. She and her husband, David, have three children and five grandsons.  Pete has no family in town and lives in a nursing home. Howard and Ann are retired and living in Arizona. Paul and his wife Rose moved to assisted living because of limitations from Paul’s recent stroke. Joan volunteers in the school library and takes her neighbor who is homebound to Mass every Sunday. Rich, a widower of six years, has just happily remarried at age 68. And Mary Beth at age 73 helps her single parent daughter raise two little boys. John Allen in his book, The Future Church, refers to this diverse population as the “gray wave.” Major questions for the Church continue to be:

• What do these fellow travelers have to offer us?

• How will we support their spiritual journey? There is nothing uniform about the graying of America. Those over 65 are either rich and poor, healthy and physically compromised, married, divorced, single, and widowed. Yet in looking at their spiritual journey some common patterns emerge. The spiritual journey of later life is one of paradox. New freedoms and increasing limitations are twin paths that join toward the end of life. Many older adults experience a new freedom for leisure, service, and learning. Children are married or moved away, parents for whom they were caring are gone, and many have retired from the rigors of full time work. Yet retired friends of mine find themselves busier than ever, often commenting that they “never knew how I had time to work!”

Married couples experience opportunities for more time together and a new sense of us – a welcome spiritual dividend after a long history together and an important measure of growth in a sacramental marriage. With the freedom that comes from having launched their own children, couples find new ways of nurturing and giving life in the community.

Joan volunteers in her local school library. Pat and Judy babysit sick grandchildren when childcare won’t take them. Older adults often sponsor RCIA candidates and provide funeral meals. For some, their time and energy goes into the care of an ill spouse or sibling.

Though there are major adjustments in the later part of marriage there are also opportunities for earning and growth, for using energy and talent for things they value or enjoy, but could not fit into their schedules earlier. With more discretionary time, older adults want to continue to be active and to learn, whether it is ballroom dancing or computer classes at the local community college. In a recent study done by U.S. Catholic magazine polled their subscribers over 65 asking how many were interested in more information about their faith, 68% said that they wanted more ongoing faith development opportunities in their parishes.

In tandem with this new freedom for elders are experiences of diminishment. In varying degrees some physical, relational, and economic losses are inevitable in the later years. Dick and Ann no longer take fishing trips with friends since Dick’s back trouble has limited his mobility. The O’Brien’s have lost their pension and are moving to a smaller home, thus giving up their dream of traveling in retirement. Many couples are working longer to maintain health care benefits.

Not all losses are physical or monetary. The later years can be colored by grief at the loss of loved ones and caring for a special needs child or the mental illness of a family member. Pat and Ann struggle with reconciling the divorces of two of their four children and the resulting limited contact with grandchildren.

Aging often presents the spiritual challenges of grief, physical limitations, loneliness, regretted lost opportunities, and financial stress. The spiritual battle of aging is between overcoming loss and appreciating the treasures and possibilities at the end of life. Having spent their lives preparing for the future, elders now have the gift of enjoying the present moment.

Aging brings perspective and time for reflection on life’s blessings. This yields gratitude for simple things, a desire to keep growing, and the joy of watching the next generation mature. If they allow it, older adults enjoy being the receiver of kindnesses instead of always the giver.

In the mix of darkness and light, faith can be deepened or lost. At this point on their life journey older adults are asking hard questions. Who am I now that I am no longer working, or that I am alone? What comes after this life? What is the meaning of suffering? How can I reconcile what I had hoped to accomplish in life, but did not? These are profoundly spiritual questions that go to the heart of our Catholic faith, a faith that provides meaning to grief and loss, suffering, reconciliation, death, and eternity.

Research from The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), in its recent studies of Catholic practice, shows that older adults are more inclined to attend and practice their faith than younger  generation. The spiritual exercises of aging take reflection; and reflection takes time. The later years can provide both.

Elders look to the Church for direction and companionship on this last leg of their spiritual journey.  Being true to the original vision of family ministry established in the early 1980s, we continue to listen to  those who are experiencing this stage of life and listen to the research about future social, financial, and health trends that affect our aging families. We recognize the value of like to like ministry among elders as we have with the engaged, married, divorced, etc.

In addition, the U.S. Bishops and some dioceses have created plans that will guide pastoral ministers in assisting older Catholics in realizing the full potential of their later years. Family ministers and parishes have begun the effort by gathering widows and widowers for bereavement programs and providing support for caregivers. Many parishes offer faith formation and personal enrichment opportunities for older adults, including them in intergenerational programs and also allowing them space for gathering around their own later life issues. Parishes have long provided opportunities for elders to use their experience and gifts as sponsors for RCIA, marriage preparation or other parish or community programs.

Local retreat centers are good collaborators in offering classes and spiritual enrichment for the later years. The experience of aging, whether one grows older alone or with a married partner, is one of change. This is not something new. Change is essential to life and to spiritual growth. The spirituality of aging is about the transformative nature of change. That is true of every life transition. For followers of Christ, the dying and rising is embedded into everyday lived experience of loss and of new life.

Aging places before us great challenges and opportunities for deepening faith in the paschal mystery Jesus continued from page 1 Christ. When faced with the normal developmental losses of later life; the memory failing a bit, the body weakening, the loss of loved ones, are elders able to see the new  possibilities, the “freedoms from” that result from loss?

It isn’t change itself that is the spiritual stumbling block, it is the attitude toward such later-life changes that can bring happiness and peace. Acceptance leads to transformation, resistance to depression.

As the church welcomes this gray wave into its pews I find Joan Chittister’s attitude an inspiring vision to guide ministry to aging families into the future. In her book, The Gift of Years, she says: “As long as we breathe we have responsibility for the co-creation of the world. We have potential to become wiser, spiritually stronger, more than ever a blessing to our families and to the human family.”