I came across the following article on Sunday morning in USA Today: “Aging: The One Part People Don’t Talk About – and 5 Ways to Cope.” In my first two congregations, the majority of my time was spent ministering to elderly people who were facing physical and mental decline, feeling more isolated and helpless in their state. I’ve found it deeply meaningful helping people deal with questions about their quality of life and feelings around their loss of independence.
So the article certainly peaked my interest. It named the reality of grief, loss, anxiety, and dread that comes with aging and decline. As the title suggests, it even offers 5 helpful ways for folks to cope. However, I started to notice a trend: all of the experts interviewed were caregivers from the mental health field. In fact, the author of the article represents a non-profit news company that covers health issues. Strangely, this disturbed me, and caused me to ask:
“Is facing aging and the end of life a mental health issue?”
Now before you assume I’m going to sound like one more of those overly religious type who is going to offer a rant and lament about how the church or God is being pushed out by mental health professionals, let me offer that I have a lot of respect for these folks and in fact, I even work closely with them in my work as a pastor and chaplain. They offer so much help and relief for so many who are in pain, and are a huge help to elderly folks who struggle to grasp what is to come as they near death. Yet, I think relegating these issues and the elderly people who suffer from them as “mental health” issues falls well short of actually helping them come to terms with their reality. I wonder, is the solution much simpler than that?
Aging and end of life struggles for me as fundamental questions about the value of human life and its sanctity. What does it mean to preserve human worth when people lose their functionality and independence in a society that ties a person’s value to such things? What might our obligation or responsibility be to participate in preserving people’s dignity and worth as they age? Do we even have an obligation or responsibility at all? In short, will we care for our aging when they need us most?
The experts in the article all suggest that the aging need us. We shouldn’t let them face their struggles alone. This sounds simple, and it is. I think what bothers me is that we tend to place the whole burden of seeking help on those who are suffering. We leave it up to people to seek mental health or medical professionals who will diagnose their pain and prescribe solutions, when all that is really needed is for others to take notice and care. If we need experts and professionals to tell us to connect to and care for one another, then our society – then we – are in trouble.
To be human is to suffer, and to acknowledge another human is to acknowledge when they are suffering, and come along side them in their need. This is a basic thing that for generations, has kept us from completely destroying each other and ourselves. In fact, I would contend that caring and connecting are basic human functions – as important and natural to life as eating, drinking, and breathing.
When I think back on the folks in my congregations, I can’t help but recall how they wanted nothing more than to see children, grandchildren. They wanted people like myself who would listen to their struggles and acknowledge their feelings of grief, loss, and fear. (Although I will admit I am guilty of letting my inattentiveness and discomfort cause me to fail them at times) For the most part, they didn’t ask myself or anyone to fix their situation. In fact, most had some level of acceptance at a process that was inevitable. What they needed was relief from their feelings associated with aging, which strangely, all that was needed was someone to take time to care and connect.
All sorts of data shows what we all know to be true in our hearts and minds: when we deny the basic need for connection in the face of hardship, we collectively decline faster physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We make our struggles worse. The question is, will we continue to relegate caring for those dealing with the all too common feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration associated with aging to a small cadre of credentialed professionals? Or, will we come to the realization people facing such things don’t always need professional help – they need us.