Some elders live in denial, refusing to face the limitations that aging brings. They fail to adapt. This often results in injury, or at the very least, frustration, anger and disenfranchisement. They sometimes see themselves as a victim, retreating into hopelessness, depression, sadness, or fear. By failing to adjust to their limitations in healthy, constructive ways, they become even less able to do what they want to do.
Others allow themselves time to grieve losses, and then move forward in proactive, constructive ways. Grief is an important step. Disability, illness and disease can be devastating. These things change us in ways we do not want to be changed. But the critical question is: How will we respond? Our attitude and choices will define the rest of our life. Those who adapt refuse to let their disabilities turn them into a victim. They live into the fullness of their lives in new ways by acquiring new skills. They feel empowered and more optimistic.
These may seem like dualistic extremes. Many people will fit somewhere between the two, perhaps going back and forth. But I know people who fit these descriptions.
Here’s a composite example: An individual is legally blind. Resources and assistive devices are available. But she does not want to listen to audio books or bother with magnifying glasses. She feels that those things take too much effort. When I visit, she says that she feels isolated, bored and lonely. She cannot watch the television, read, or do the craft projects she once loved. Her world has shrunk. She has nothing to do, and remains stuck in grief, lament and complaint.
On the other hand, I will share the story of a resident I know, with her permission. She also is legally blind, but resilient. She makes the most of every resource. She uses magnifying glasses. She even sings in the choir with large print music placed on a stand, and a magnifying glass in her hand. She uses a large-screen computer and enlarged font, and watches favorite ballgames and sports by sitting directly in front of a large screen television. She exudes an upbeat, optimistic attitude, even with the challenges she navigates. I realize that some have more resources than others. But perhaps a person’s own resiliency is the greatest resource of all.
The disabilities of aging do not need to be a “death sentence.” Another inspiring nonagenarian friend lives fully in spite of several disabilities. She often says to me, “We have to keep on keeping on.” And I believe her.
Paula is a 2008 M.Div graduate of Bethany Theological Seminary. She serves as staff pastor for the Brethren Retirement Community in Greenville, Ohio. Currently, she enjoys sharing her travel photos as Visio Divina, paired with daily devotions written for residents and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and husband, Dan, live in Greenville, with adult children. They attend Oakland Church of the Brethren in Bradford, Ohio.