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Pro-Life series: Fully Alive in Old Age

Recently I was at a family gathering and beheld a precious moment as my elderly mother held a newly born great-grandson in her arms…an age difference of 89 years. Although the baby received all the attention it was not lost on a few of us that mom also deserved our honour in that moment.   

My mom and her sister, my aunt, who will be 95 in a couple of months, are examples to me of two matriarchs living pro-life into their old age. Both are widowed, having been married early to the love of their lives. Both have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Both made a decision in their early 80’s to leave their communities of nearly 50 years to be near their children. Both know well the growing limitations of ageing and their increasing dependence on others for their everyday needs. Both believe without a shadow of a doubt that their time is in God’s hand. They are pro-life with every breath they breathe.  

When I walk through the door of my mom’s home or knock on the door of my aunt’s small room in a care home their smiles of love and recognition make my day as much my visit brightens theirs. For all that they share many similarities my mom and my aunt live in very different situations. As I spend time with one and then the other I am grateful that they are safe, that each is being cared for, but I am also aware of how living situations enrich or limit the possibilities for being fully alive.

The basics that are needed for a good healthy life at any age are important for 80 and 90 year olds as well: delicious, nutritious, familiar food; regular exercise, both physical and mental; regular, monitored, and modified medication; clothing and hair care that reminds them they are beautiful. And perhaps most important of all, they need companions, caregivers, and family who love them and learn to love them, people who share their language, language of birth and country as well as language of faith. Safety, security, and dignity are important for both physical and emotional well-being.

To me, being pro-life means taking the time to visit my mother and aunt and to share a cup of tea and cookies. It means looking at photos and hearing the stories of their childhoods and adolescent years together, of the war years and immigration. Being pro-life means taking the time to help these sisters visit together despite the inconvenience of distance. It also means speaking up when they are treated harshly or with impatience. It means listening sympathetically when it is hard for them to get used to yet more changes in caregivers, menus, or schedules and changes in their own limitations. All this is about being pro-life.

This summer I read two books that speak into this subject of living life well into the later years.

In her memoir What Comes Next and How to Like It, Abigail Thomas contemplates the meaning of life as she sees people she loves battle cancer. She decides to dive in and prepare herself for how they might suffer and how she might be there for those she loves. “I want to make Death a member of my family. I don’t want it to arrive as a stranger.” Many of us have walked the cancer journey with others or ourselves. We will all certainly see or experience old age, either in the life of someone we love or for ourselves. Death is our sure end. Being pro-life is inviting the possibility of death no matter how it comes.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande reminded me of the importance of taking time to share my story and to hear the stories of others.  “In the end, people don't view their life as merely the average of all its moments…For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people's minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence….We have purposes larger than ourselves. Our most cruel failure in how we treat…the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” 

Two scriptures and words from a prophet of our time come to mind. Moses calls the people to declare their commitment in Deuteronomy 30:19: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

The prophet Joel declares a day of the Lord when “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28).

In conclusion, I leave you with the words of Frederick Buechner: “We must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.”  

This is the 12th post in our "What Being Pro-Life Means to Me" series! What does being pro-life mean to you? Over this fall, we'll hear various writers respond to that question. Learn more and subscribe for weekly email updates. 

[Image: Flickr user Elizabeth Phung]

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