Re-Purposing Your Life

The other day we met one of our favourite Boomer couples for lunch. It had been a long time since we had visited with them and so it was great to get caught up on all their news. We talked about how Covid had impacted our lives, our longing for a return to a more normal life and how we all missed seeing family and friends on a regular basis.

Then one of our friends said, “You know, this whole experience with Covid has made me reconsider retirement. At one time I could not wait for the day. Now I realise that when that time comes, I will need to have something more in my life, something meaningful, a reason to get up in the morning.” Our friend’s husband agreed and so did Richard and I.

Many Boomers who are still working full-time got a trial run at retirement during Covid. Working from home, we have learned what it is like to spend every minute of every hour of every day with our partner. We have missed our colleagues and the daily routine of getting up, dressed up, and heading out to work. Some of us have even missed the long commute. (Okay, maybe we didn’t miss it all that much!) It’s a been a wake-up call for those who have always believed that nothing could be better than sleeping in late each morning and spending the day reading and golfing and doing woodworking or making crafts.

Life is a long series of adaptations and one of the toughest ones we face is retirement. I have long believed that Churches could and should do a far better job of helping people in retirement, not by simply sticking them on a committee they may have no interest or aptitude for, but rather by helping people to really explore how God is calling them into a new chapter, one in which they are being encouraged to use their talents and hard won experience in the pursuit of a more just world. God gives us fresh beginnings every day. How will we use those in the service of God’s Kin-dom here on earth? Maybe we need to think of retirement less as a withdrawal from our life’s work and more as a form of “re-purposing” our lives, in which we re-align our lives to God’s purposes.

A Boomer’s Stroll Down Memory Lane! Happy Anniversary to the Best Husband in the World!

Yesterday, since my own church at Siloam does not re-open for in-person worship until Sunday, July 18th, I had the privilege of worshipping at Metropolitan United Church in London, Ontario. The service, music and message were excellent, as always; but what I was not expecting, especially given the theme (King David dancing around the Ark of the Covenant in an ancient G-string!), was a stroll down memory lane.

The first hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation”, was the hymn to which I walked down the aisle on my wedding day, 36 years ago today! ( I remember that one wit said, “Well, at least one good thing will be happening on Orangeman’s Day!”) Then, partway through the service, the amazing soloist sang one of my favourites: The Holy City, which brought back memories of the first concert Richard and I attended after our marriage. It was the Scottish folksinger Mary Sandeman singing this beautiful piece, accompanied by the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, at The King’s in Edinburgh.

Next there was the touching announcement made by liturgist Rick Wood as he shared the news of the recent birth of his little granddaughter. Understandably overcome by emotion, he shed a tear as he described this precious wee lass, that brought to mind the birth of our first child, also a girl, who will be married on August 14th, the circle of life complete!

And Rev. Dr. Geoff Crittenden’s reference to the scantily clad King David dancing around the Ark of the Covenant? Well, what can I say except that our daughter was soon accompanied by three younger brothers!

Remembering a Dear Friend: A Now Common Feature of the Second Half of Life Landscape

I have just re-read the story of Henry Francis Lyte. Born in Scotland on June 1st, 1793, Lyte was left an orphan when he was only a child. Life was hard for him and constantly he struggled with poverty. His dream of becoming a physician eluded him, but he eventually felt a call to the ministry.

He wrote that a turning-point occurred in his life when he was summoned to the bedside of a dear friend who was dying. Both he and his friend were devastated by the prospect of the man’s death, but together they read the scriptures and prayed. Through that experience each found the peace he needed: the dying one found love and acceptance in the sure hope that he was returning to the God who loved him, and Lyte discovered his pathway into the Christian ministry.

For nearly 25 years Lyte served as minister to the fisherfolk and sailors of Lower Brixham. But his health was frail and over the years it continued to dissipate. In the fall of 1847, Lyte had a premonition that the end was near. He told a friend that the swallows were flying southward and that “they were inviting me to accompany them; and yet alas; while I am talking of flying, I am just able to crawl.”

Soon he celebrated his farewell worship service with the good people of Brixham. Afterwards he walked out to the shoreline and watched the splendour of the setting sun over the shimmering waters. After spending about an hour in nature, he returned to his study to compose one of the Church’s most favourite hymns: “Abide With Me”. The words are included below.

Those of us who find ourselves in the second half of life are starting to grow accustomed to endings. It is the part of the older adult journey that I like the least, but I know I have to get used to it. I remember when I was starting out in ministry, a lovely man who was the local funeral director told me in private that he did not think he could do his job much longer. He was in sixties at the time and found that he was burying too many of his friends.

A couple of weeks ago I lost a dear friend. Bruce was the Clerk of Session on my ordinand’s pastoral charge. He was not the most successful farmer I have ever known, but he loved life on the land and he loved people.. He was also a thoughtful, caring and deeply faithful servant of Christ. He loved to sing in the choir and I am sure Lyte’s hymn was a favourite because Bruce loved all the “oldies but goodies.” Although I did not get to see him a lot in recent years, he would phone me from time to time, always eager to learn about what I was up to and how my family was doing. Over the years Richard and the children and I have received many beautiful cards from him. He never forgot a birthday or an anniversary. I know he trusted that God abided with him throughout all the ups and downs of life. Now “heaven’s morning has broken for him” and, as in life, so in death Bruce abides in the eternal love of the Lord he served for 85 years.

Rest in peace, Bruce.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour;
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

A Response to Canada Day: Do Something Good for Others

In light of the discovery of even more unmarked graves at Canada’s residential schools, it is difficult to know how we should mark Canada Day this year. How do we respond to evil?

By way of an answer (and I realise that this response is still wholly inadequate), perhaps the best thing we can do is to listen to the stories of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. The other thing we can do when bad things happen is to commit ourselves to doing good.

Like Leon. Andy Langford, Mark Ralls, and Rod Weber tell his story on page 163 of their book, Beginnings. The Spiritual Life:

“Leon was a successful businessman, helping run a textile mill and then buying and selling commercial real estate. Although Leon was active in his community throughout his life, his retirement truly unleashed his potential to serve. Leon cooked meals for the homeless, built Habitat for Humanity homes, added wheelchair ramps to the homes of the elderly, and visited older members in his community who had been forgotten. When Leon was seventy-seven years old, he risked journeying to Bolivia to help build a new church facility in the Andes.  For two weeks, Leon worked at 13,800 feet above sea level, digging holes through the rock for the foundation of the new building. After two weeks of work, Leon and his friends had dug twelve large holes that would be used for the foundations of the projected facility. Leon never saw the finished building; the facility took several more years to build. But Leon dug the hole for the foundation; and that foundation has since changed the lives of children, women, and men that Leon never met.”

What good things can you commit yourself to in the second half of life? As Baby Boomers and older adults, we all have many talents and a lifetime’s worth of experience to share with others. What better way to mark Canada Day – or any other day, for that matter – than by resolving to do something good for others.

Three Steps to Trauma Recovery Can Also Aid Us in Older Adulthood

Recently I had occasion to read a summary of the three steps to trauma recovery as expounded by Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, a Harvard psychiatrist. These steps can be helpful those who have experienced some trauma in their lives, such as physical violence or disaster, which has left them with PTSD. Even those who do not suffer from PTSD, among them older adults, can benefit from these steps, especially if they have suffered the death of a loved one, or serious physical or mental illness.

The first step is to regain “a sense of safety”. This includes helping people to understand why they may experience jumpiness or panic attacks, or why they have particular reactions to certain circumstances. When we begin to understand the symptoms, then they become far less frightening. When this happens we can start to gain some control over our situation. For example, an elderly person who fears suffering from another fall, can reduce the feelings of being unsafe and gain some control over his/her/their situation by starting to go for walks again, perhaps accompanied initially by a friend. Healing, then, is literally small steps away.

Another step to healing involves retelling our story. For PTSD patients, this means going over the details of the traumatic experience we suffered, and putting the entire memory into words so that we can then begin to mourn the loss that the trauma brought. For all of us, particularly older adults, it is well known that life review is of great benefit to people suffering from depression. This is significant because we know that the rate of depression in those over the age of 65 increases by at least 25% over that of the rest of the population.

Several recent scientific studies have shown that talking about our life experiences lowers blood pressure and strengthens the immune system. Plus, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence in the published scientific literature that affirms that “life review” is of tremendous help to people experiencing grief. Not only does it lower levels of depression, but it is also found to increase problem-solving skills and self-esteem while assisting in the grief process.[1]

For those who are engaged in caring for an elderly relative, life review can be a powerful tool in assisting the one who needs care. This is what Rabbi Dayle Friedman calls “sacred listening.”[2] By listening to another’s story, you honour that individual. Such listening also goes a long way toward creating a safe space for both the caregiver and the one receiving the care to express emotions without feeling that they are being judged. It is natural to experience some distress when we watch the decline of those we have loved and looked up to all our lives. Inviting them to share their story with us can provide an antidote to the sorrow we may feel by allowing us to consider what in this person’s story we can hold on to and focus on the blessing their life has been. What is their legacy to us?

The third step to healing is reestablishing a normal life. In this stage traumatic remembrances do not erupt out of the blue or threaten our sense of equilibrium or self-control. We are able to re-visit them when we wish and lay them aside just as easily. We can begin to trust our relationships, gain some sense of mastery over our world, and find new meaning.

[1] James Pennebaker, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997.)

[2] Friedman, Jewish Visions for Aging, 120–123, 135.

The Medical Benefits of Caring for Your Emotions

Many people develop Type II Diabetes when they enter the second half of life. My mother was unfortunately one of those who was diagnosed with this disease when she was in her 58th year. She battled this illness for many years. One thing I noticed, however, was that whenever she was under some form of emotional stress or experiencing excessive worry, her blood sugars rose and her physical health diminished. She later developed heart disease, which eventually took her life, not an uncommon outcome for people who suffer from diabetes.

I have since learned that my mother could have been greatly helped if, in addition to the medical care she received, she had also been given counselling to help her cope with the anxiety and fear she was facing. In research that has emerged from a study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine with more than a thousand men and women who had suffered a first heart attack, those women who went on to suffer a second heart attack were marked by high levels of fearfulness and anxiety. Subsequent studies have shown that women (and men too) who were offered personal counselling or taught relaxation techniques were not only able to handle their turbulent feelings better, but they also experienced some reprieve from their illness, in many cases lengthening their life and enhancing the quality of their life.

Daniel Goleman, whose work on Emotional Intelligence is well known, suggests that a good preventive strategy in dealing with the physical challenges that people face in the second half of life would be to teach them emotion management. He says that, since emotional well-being is one factor that determines whether an older person declines rapidly or thrives,  those entering into retirement, or already in retirement, could benefit greatly from regular sessions with a personal counsellor or therapist. Certainly, the scientific evidence shows that, just as we need to care for our physical health, so also we need to care for our mental and emotional health, and that both physical and emotional health go hand in hand. Our emotions can and do affect our ability to recover from surgery or cope with chronic illness.

Reflections on PRIDE Month: Gay and Aging

As we begin the second week of Pride Month, it behooves us to pause and consider what life is like for most older adult members of the LGBTQ+ community. Studies show that many seniors suffer from loneliness and isolation as they age; but these factors are heightened for LGBTQ+ seniors.

For example, close to 50% of LGBTQ+ seniors do not live in conjugal relationships and many have no children or certainly fewer children than most heterosexual seniors.

According to the Government of Canada[1], other significant factors put LGBTQ+ seniors at greater risk than their heterosexual siblings. While all seniors can and do suffer from loneliness, loss of social network or interactions, or fear the loss of autonomy due to illness or disabilities, there are additional factors that contribute to the sense of isolation many older adults who are LGBTQ+. Here are just a few that the government identifies:

  • Having to conceal sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Fear of discrimination
  • Past or current discrimination
  • Stigmatization associated with discrimination based on age, sex and ethnocultural community
  • Fear of going into a private seniors’ residence or long-term care facility
  • Lack of support or feeling unwelcome at programs for seniors
  • Lack of opportunities to contribute to the community and perform volunteer work
  • Housing discrimination
  • Heterosexist or homophobic culture within society and within organizations that provide care and services
  • Being HIV positive or having developed HIV/AIDS
  • Difficulty that others have in accepting gender reassignment or transition
  • Interpersonal difficulties and rejection by family, social network or broader community

Clearly community centres for seniors, senior residential communities and residences need to do a better job of making it known that LGBTQ+ seniors are welcome. Staff need to be trained to understand and promote healthy, inclusive attitudes and should be held accountable if they do not. Films that include members of the LGBTQ+ community need to be shown and discussion circles developed to help break down the barriers of prejudice and discrimination. Opportunities for LGBTQ+ individuals to tell their stories – if they wish – should also be made available.

There is much more that we can do to build trust and affirmation between and among all seniors, and indeed among all generations. There is a very great deal still to be done to create a healthy aging environment for LGBTQ+ seniors. Please share your ideas and experiences. I would love hear from you!

Happy PRIDE Month!


Was It Really Curiosity that Killed the Cat? Or Was it Boredom?

You have heard the saying: “Curiosity killed the cat.” I beg to differ.

Richard and I once had a delightful cat. Her name was McGonagall, called after Scotland’s worst poet, William Topaz McGonagall.  She lived to be 17 ½ years old, dying in old age and from natural causes. She managed to survive four busy toddlers and as many manses, all built across from high traffic roads and highways. She always went out every evening to explore the great outdoors, not returning until the sun came up. On two occasions only did she stay away longer than one night. Although she played her cards pretty close to her chest, it seemed to us that she enjoyed a pretty exciting night life, certainly far more riveting than anything we were getting up to with four small children in tow!

McGonagall definitely did not die from curiosity! But a lot of people do and that’s a tragedy.

Many years ago when my mother was a very young woman trying to make a living during the Great Depression, the company she worked for finally decided to shut down the plant and give its employees a week’s paid holidays. Everyone was over the moon. Everyone except one ornery Scotsman. (I know the Scots are not faring well in today’s blog!) He was furious about being forced to take a week’s vacation. When everyone returned to work a week later, filled with stories of what they had got up to on their holidays, he did not. It seemed he had died during his week off work. Sadly, my mother said that she suspected he had died of boredom.

We see this frequently when people retire. I remember an old school principal in my congregation warning another parishioner who had just retired from teaching, “Be careful. Many teachers have a heart attack and die after six months into their retirement.” What he should have said was not “Be careful,” but rather “Be curious!” Fortunately, his younger colleague is a very curious man and his curiosity has led him to meaningful pursuits with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and also to places as far away as China, where he taught English for several years.

After interviewing a variety of individuals for his illuminating study on finding your vocation, author Gregg Levoy, concluded that the people who are most responsive to their calling are those who have a high level of curiosity about their world, other people, and their own selves. They are also happier and healthier. “Curiosity is the cure.”

So if you are struggling to find a calling or purpose in the second half of your life, consider those things about which you are curious. Not really curious about anything? A good way to hone your curiosity skills is to “pay attention” to what is going on in and around you. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell, whom Levoy quotes, said that often our problem is one of “inadvertence, of not being alert, not awake.” Start by looking around your neighbourhood to see what the needs are.

Get curious. It just might save your life!

Victoria Day: A Boomer Memory

Today is Victoria Day in Canada. Celebrated only in English Canada and Scotland, and not in the rest of the UK, this holiday has always signified the start of summer.[1]

          Its history goes back to the nineteenth century, commemorating the birthday of Queen Victoria, who was born on May 24, 1819. Victoria reigned for just over 63 years. Her birthday was declared a Canadian holiday by the government in 1845. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Canada’s parliament officially named the holiday Victoria Day, and it was decided that it would always be celebrated on the second last Monday in May. In 2021, that’s May 24th.

          When I was a youngster I remember that my Dad would always fly the Union Jack from our house. If the weather were nice, which it often was, we would head to my grandmother’s cottage for the weekend, which we loved because we got to swim in the lake. On the evening of Victoria Day we celebrated with fireworks and sparklers. Unfortunately, I also remember getting my hands burned a few times when I was given a sparkler to wave around, at least until my mother said enough is enough and wisely put an end to that practice. While we continue to celebrate Victoria Day today in English-speaking Canada, and some towns and cities still have firework displays, I think many have forgotten the holiday’s connection to Queen Victoria and our British roots. But for those of us who grew up in the Boomer generation, as well as our parents and grandparents, the links to the British throne were still very strong. Every day, as part of the morning exercises in elementary school, we pledged our allegiance to the Queen (Elizabeth II) and then sang “God Save the Queen”, followed of course by the Lord’s Prayer.    

          While I have fond memories of those days, times have changed. I still admire the present Queen for her devotion to duty, her incredible stamina, and her willingness to embrace people from all cultures. She has been a strong, stable and non-anxious presence in times of crisis and upheaval. However, no longer do schoolchildren in Canada pledge allegiance to the Queen or sing “God Save the Queen”. Instead they sing: “O Canada”. Occasionally they say the Lord’s Prayer, but they also include rituals and spiritual traditions from other religions and from First Nations Spirituality. The vision, even if it is not yet realised, is for a far more inclusive society, one that seeks to tear down the vestiges of colonialism and racism, while promoting right relations with our indigenous siblings, along with justice for all people within our borders and beyond them. Now that’s something to celebrate!

[1] Quebec celebrates Journee nationale des patriots — National Patriots Day.

Diagnosing and Labelling Another is a Very Slippery Affair, says Edwin Friedman

Lately I have been re-reading Edwin Friedman’s classic Generation to Generation. On page 55, when discussing individuals who have recently been given a particular medical diagnosis, Friedman notes how “the labelling effects of diagnosis destroy the person.” When others in the family or organisation learn the diagnosis, they start to see the diagnosed individual as now being limited in terms of their capabilities. As he adds, “eventually a family member’s label will become confused with his or her identity.”

          This is especially true, Friedman says, when we are talking about older adults. As family members anxiously worry about their aging relatives, they often expect that their older loved one cannot function any better because of “the condition”(p. 56). So they rush in to be supportive, often over functioning and over helping, and thus inhibiting their loved one’s potential. The older person is now seen as one who is no longer capable or as one who is not able to change and grow. The diagnosis thus limits the person’s potential.

          This is another example of how ageism adversely impacts older adults and robs them of the dignity and respect they deserve. When people of any age become identified by labels or diagnoses we fail to see their humanity and potential as God’s precious children. Friedman suggests that when we are tempted to label or diagnose someone else, it is important to look inside ourselves first and see what we are trying to hide. (p. 56) What is going on within us that is causing us to think this way about someone else?

          It is important not only that we do not label others, but also that we do not label ourselves negatively either. Pejorative labels are often self-prophetic. If we think we are stupid or unattractive or clumsy or useless, our thoughts and actions will reflect these feelings. If we think we are too old, washed-up, or that no one values our opinion because of our age, others may well disregard us. Indeed, negative self-talk can greatly restrict our potential by keeping us confined to inhibiting labels.

          Instead it is important that we remember all the good things we have accomplished in life, the love and friendship we have shared, and the good that we continue to do for those around us. Best of all, let us remember these words from Ephesians 2:10: “We are God’s masterpiece!”