I wrote recently about the first part of Richard L. Morgan’s book Settling In: My First Year in a Retirement Community. Morgan was initially enthusiastic about moving to a retirement community near his daughter, but after a month or so doubts crept in. He wrote, “The initial euphoria had worn off, and I felt suspended in a limbo between a life I loved and a life yet to come.”
I had a similar experience of having lost my old life and yearning for a new life when I moved back to my hometown in 2012 to help my parents. A move such as Morgan’s or mine is just one of many events common to older adulthood that can take us away from the life we’ve been living without supplying a new one. Retirement can have this effect, as can losing one’s mate or deteriorating health. It’s instructive to look at how Morgan responded to being in limbo.
Morgan indicates that the first step in finding his new life was a process of discernment. He explains:
“Discernment is another part of detachment. We consider our life from a critical distance and then take the next step.” (p. 91)
Morgan describes his process of discernment as taking place “through endless walks around the community and long night struggles.” What came of this?
“I discerned that God was calling me to use all the experiences and gifts of my former ministry in this place. This place? Yes, right here where people at all stages of aging need comfort and support.” (p. 92)
Morgan’s “experiences and gifts” were as a chaplain and counselor. He began volunteering to provide pastoral care. The retirement home where he resides has a variety of levels, from independent living to assisted living to nursing care to a dementia unit. He had a particular passion for working with those who had dementia. He considers ministering to them a spiritual calling:
“I am sure that today Christ can be found in the haunting, blank faces of those souls who sit behind closed doors covered with the wounds of a terrible disease of the brain…. [A]s Christians we are to go outside the camp and minister to those who are ‘outside their minds.'” (p. 143)
Morgan describes a number of interactions in which those whose memory was deeply impaired still revealed their spirituality and humanity. With time, he noticed that residents in independent living tended to avoid those from the assisted living and memory care units. One of his main goals became breaking down the dividing wall between the different categories of residents. He came to recognize that the avoidance by those in independent living stemmed from fear; higher-functioning residents were evading thoughts about their own aging and what they might become. He eventually succeeded in connecting the groups, doing so mostly through music. He started a sing-along for the dementia residents using songs from the 1930s and 1940s. He discovered that some who seemed lost to dementia were able to sing the songs of their youth. Soon, independent living residents began to attend the sing-along. Music worked magic for them as well, helping them overcome their fears. Morgan describes the scene:
“We were at last the blessed community, where all are loved and accepted. Some bent to shake the hand or hug dementia residents who had formerly lived independently. Others sat next to dementia residents and helped them follow along with the words.” (p. 154)
Through serving residents of the retirement home, helping them become a healthy, loving community, Morgan found the life for which he was looking. Service was the means by which the “life to come” that he initially longed for became his reality. All of us who have lost or will lose the life that we’ve had can benefit from his story. We, too, can enter into a process of discernment, listening for our call. As with Morgan, that call will, likely as not, entail doing something for someone else. Reaching out to that person or group will not only help them; it is the pathway to the new life that is waiting for us.