Caring and the Aging Self

As I’ve written recently, we constantly revise our sense of who we are under the tutelage of life events. I am different today than I was yesterday, though only subtly so, and will be different tomorrow than I am today. I see this as not so much a process of self-reinvention as it is a process of continual renewal. We are, as Alisdair MacIntyre said, at most the co-authors of our stories. God, who is the first author, graciously allows us latitude to write some sentences, though he creates, structures, and develops the chapters. We don’t reinvent ourselves; He renews us.

In relationship with another, I change, as does the other. We become a part of each other’s story—a part of each other’s identity. The more each of us brings our complete selves to our interaction, the more we each are changed.

Nouwen AgingIn their book Aging: The Fulfillment of Life, Henri J.M. Nouwen and Walter J. Gaffney reflected on caring and aging. They wrote, “To care one must offer one’s own vulnerable self to others as a source of healing. To care for the aging, therefore, means first of all to enter into close contact with your own aging self, to sense your own time, and to experience the movements of your own life cycle.” When I try to care while maintaining distance, I may provide some assistance, but am not caring with any degree of completeness. Complete caring means to come near. With the aged, coming near is to recognize myself as aged, to accept that my life is passing away. It is to know myself as grass in the field: “in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers (Psalm 90:6, RSV).”

For the last two years, I have lived most of the time with my elderly parents. I am there to help them. Some of the time I accept my own aging and care for them from the heart. At other times, I run from my aging and am emotionally reserved. When I am running, I may understand their ways and their needs mentally, but I don’t understand them from the heart. At such times, I am impatient, mentally criticizing the slow and hesitant pace at which they operate. I want to rush on to something I consider important. I thereby diminish their importance, and my own.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All I can say is that I am trying: trying to be completely present with them. If I stay present on a regular basis, my story will be changed and I will be one of them.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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2 Responses to Caring and the Aging Self

  1. Janet Yano says:

    Thank you for the book recommendation and for your honesty about caregiving. Anyone who is a caregiver understands.

    • bobritzema says:

      Thanks so much, Janet. All us caregivers have to be honest if we are to have any chance of growing rather than shriveling up!

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