Select Page

Image by Jacqueline Munguia on Unsplash.

In my book, I refer to the book Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister. It is a well-received, deservedly popular book. And it’s very strongly based on values.

I’m impressed to learn that this book was written by a 70-year-old Benedictine nun, which gives Gift of Years both strengths and limitations. I’ve enjoyed other books written by Benedictines – View From A Monastery and We Sing While There’s Voice Left – and other books about   Benedictines – The Father and The Son (by Matt Murray, Managing Editor of the WSJ) and In This House of Brede (fiction).

To say this book is “optimistic” is like saying the sun is a little warm on a July day in Florida. Chittister shares a popular message: It’s all about your mindset.

For example:

p 25: “Only the old can make age a bright and vibrant place to be.”

p 60: “First the job goes, then the house goes, then the precious things begin to go, one little piece at a time to the children one old box after another to the thrift shop folks. Then the privacy goes, then the dog and the cat, the desk and the papers, the trips, and eventually the car. Then, finally, for the first time, the self goes.”

If she weren’t a Catholic nun, I’d say she’s making a good case for medically assisted dying. In my book, I say everyone over 75 should have free and easy access to a cyanide pill. What’s the meaning of life after all this is gone?

Her answer is that we have a choice about coping well or poorly.  

For some of us, privacy, cat, dog, and independence define who we are. Encouraging people to “make light of” these losses seems unrealistic.

It’s one thing to adjust to “retirement living” by saying, “There are people I can help here,” although this statement is exactly what many educated white-collar criminals say when they are about to enter a federal prison camp.

But it’s another to decide whether you will cope gracefully with abusive treatment in nursing homes.

Chittister encourages us to look at cultures that value aging and honor their elders. Few of those cultures exist anymore.

Besides, if you’re going to look at those cultures, look also at the societies where elders were left behind when they were too weak to keep up on tribal journeys. Some societies killed their elders during times of famine. That may be kinder than keeping them in nursing homes.

Be all you can be: Volunteer! 

Chittister encourages us to become our fullest selves – but only if we happen to have selves that are suited to charity work and children.

Alas, not everyone finds meaning in helping others. Some people are better suited to working and donating to charities rather than taking a hands-on role in the charities.

Some people want to be door-greeters at Wal-Mart or (as she suggests) teachers’ aides at a local school (not an easy job to get). But a lot of people will find those roles unsatisfying and more stressful than the high-powered jobs they’re denied.

I continue to recommend Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die. She’s not afraid to come right out and speak the truth:  Sometimes aging is worse than dying.

Less spiritual, perhaps, but a lot more realistic.