One of the most important tasks of our senior years is to make peace with ourselves. Life is not fair and some of us have suffered a full measure of this unfairness.
By Fr. Jude Winkler, OFM Conv.
At each stage of our lives, there are certain tasks that we must accomplish if we are to be at peace with ourselves. The senior years are no exception. Far from spending these years on cruise control, our senior years are a tremendous spiritual challenge. If we embrace this challenge, though, we will find a profound peace that cannot be shaken no matter what our life brings.
One of the most important tasks of our senior years is to make peace with ourselves. Life is not fair and some of us have suffered a full measure of this unfairness. We often experience regrets about our life. The senior years give us the time to reflect upon these things until we can come to peace with them, letting go of hurts and failures. If we try to carry them into the grave, they will poison our spirt and we will become (or continue to be) angry people. While we must mourn for the emotional pains in our lives, we must eventually place our hurts and disappointments in God’s hands and move on.
Live with Limitations
Our senior years often bring their limitations. Maybe we don’t have the energy we once did, our eyesight and hearing suffer, or we are taking more medications. Dealing with this takes a certain balance: we will often have to push ourselves so these limitations don’t imprison us, but we also have to recognize that we just cannot do everything that we once did.
The limitations might also mean that we must make some painful changes in our lives. We might have to sell the house because it is too much to take care of, give up driving at night because of night blindness, or attend church less than we’d like. While there is pain in each of these realizations, we do find peace when we finally accept the reality of our situation.
There are also more goodbyes to say in our senior years. We have to say goodbye to things and life styles. We might be selling the house where we raised the kids. That can be as traumatic and painful as losing a loved one. Give yourself time to mourn over it.
We have the goodbye of retirement. While being free from work sometimes seems like an unqualified joy, it can also be traumatic. Many people draw their self-worth from what they produce. Give yourself time to adjust. It is good to admit the discomfort and address it openly instead of suffering silently.
We also have many goodbyes brought about through death. These goodbyes will make us reflect on our own deaths. We Christians believe that God is awaiting us. While we should take care of our health and seek medical help, we should not be so terrified of death that we torture ourselves with unwarranted medical procedures that lengthen the quantity but not the quality of our lives.
The senior years are not just pain and misery. They are also the chance to do some of the things that we always wanted to do. It is no sin to have a good time. We should not feel guilty for traveling, either tourism or to see the family. We can read more, participate in various forms of recreation, take up hobbies, or just spend more time just doing nothing.
There are, of course, a couple of cautions. When couples are retired one often wants to do more while the other would be satisfied to sit at home and do nothing. Both have to compromise and find a way to satisfy each other’s needs.
The other caution is that the line between self-love and selfishness is very subtle. While one should relax, one might also think of spending a bit of time in some form of voluntary service. Charities and religious organizations are constantly looking for volunteers. This might be a good opportunity to share one’s experiences, time, and love with the less fortunate. This has the added benefit of keeping us from dwelling on our own difficulties for it puts them in perspective.
Optimism and Gratitude
It is important to be optimistic as we grow older. Some people see all the flaws and become negative. They complain all day long about everything, making themselves and everyone around them miserable. Optimism is a choice. Look for good things that are happening and celebrate them. As you go about your day, compliment people who have done a good job: a waitress, medical care staff, or one’s own family members, for instance. Try to give three compliments for each critique.
We should also be grateful. This is a virtue that is often sadly lacking in our society. There are so many ways that we have been blessed yet it is easy to take things for granted. One great practice for cultivating gratitude is to keep a diary of gratitude, writing down five things for which we are grateful each day.
Lastly, remember that God’s grace works at a level that we often cannot see, so trust that even if it is not going well now, things will somehow work out.
A Time for Prayer
One’s senior years also offer us the time to pray more—to life everything up to God as an offering of love. Many seniors seek to attend daily Mass. Many join the prayer chain at the parish. Many begin to pray the rosary again (a practice that they might have dropped during their “busy” years). All of this is good and laudatory. It gives one the peace that one is seeking, and it also gives one a sense of purpose–that while we can’t do as much as we would like, we can contribute through our prayer.
If there is any stage in our life when we realize that we are not in charge, it is our senior years. This can lead to a sense of helplessness and frustration, or it can lead to a profound peace when we surrender and put it all in the Lord’s hands. If we do this each day, we will find it easier to pray with Jesus, “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” †
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