Advertisement

Hermine Saunders: We decide how to handle aging

A person can learn a few things from an old dog. As the months slipped by and his infirmities mounted, Marley taught us mostly about life's uncompromising finiteness. Jenny and I were not quite middle-aged. Our children were young, our health good, and our retirement years still an unfathomable distance off on the horizon. It would have been easy to deny the inevitable creep of age, to pretend it might somehow pass us by. Marley would not afford us the luxury of such denial. As we watched him grow gray and deaf and creaky, there was no ignoring his mortality - or ours. Age sneaks up on us all, but it sneaks up on a dog with a swiftness that is both breathtaking and sobering.

With those words, John Grogan begins chapter 24, fittingly titled "The Potty Room," in "Marley and Me," a book about his dog Marley and their family life. What I find interesting about this passage is what the dog teaches man about "life's uncompromising finiteness" and the "inevitable creep of age" - in other words, the ability to accept our own aging and eventual death.

Advertisement

Some have said God gives us pets to teach us about death, and that may be true, but this passage has prompted me to think about why God gives us old people.

Old pets who are frail and sick can be given injections that remove them from pain and debilitating diseases. Too often, old people seem to languish in their own homes, nursing homes or the homes of loved ones. Of what value are they to society, to their loved ones, to themselves? They may seem simply a drain on resources that could better be spent on the young or some other segment of society. But wait just one minute. Who gets to decide whose life is useful, meaningful, valuable?

The answer is simple: You and I get to decide. By our attitude and response, we decide what that older person is worth to our society and to us as individuals. Do we see someone who has experienced a whole lifetime of joys and sorrows and from whom we can learn a thing or two about facing life's experiences? Do we see someone who has bettered the world just by being in it - by working to support a family, by volunteering to help others, by teaching skills and trades and poems and songs, by giving to causes that support others? Do we see that person for the gains he or she has made, or do we see only the losses that old age may bring?

How we answer these questions will determine whether we visit older people - to let them know we think they have something to teach us about living. It will determine whether we comfort and support older people in the hours of their greatest need at the end of life - to understand better how to face the end of our own life. It will determine whether we give resources to support those who have lived longer than their money - to learn to fulfill Jesus' words in the Bible to tend and feed his sheep as part of our social ministry. These are the "new tricks" that you and I get to learn at the bedside, the wheelchair, the walker of an older person whose life has given and continues to give our lives meaning.

Advertisement
Advertisement