When Fraility Arrives

Recently, David Sedaris wrote an article about his family, in particular his elderly father, who fell on the eve of his 95th birthday party. When family arrived he fell again and was disoriented, so he was admitted to a rehab facility and eventually to a long-term care facility. David visited after a few months. A few days later, while spending some time at his beach house, he reflected on the marked change in his father:

“It was strange being at the beach without him, but we didn’t yet have the proper equipment: a walk-in shower, bars beside the toilet, and so on. A year earlier, he hadn’t needed those things, but that’s the difference between ninety-four and ninety-five. The day before his fall, he’d driven to the gym, not knowing that it was his last time behind the wheel of a car, his last night in his own bed. There would be a lot of that in his immediate future: the last time he could dress himself, the last time he could walk. I worried that he had entered a period when it would be one thing after another, death by a thousand cuts….”

This passage resonated with me because of recent events with my 93-year-old mother. She started having difficulty breathing right after the first of the year. Her feeding tube, which had been replaced less than a month earlier, started leaking, soaking her clothes. She was having to do quite a bit of laundry and was feeling overwhelmed. She had an X-ray that discovered fluid around her heart. I was out of town at the time, finally getting back January 9. She had had a bad day and my brother had taken a half-day off work to come over and help her through the afternoon and evening. She had just reached the end of what she could do, she said.

She was only a little better the next morning. I sat in on her appointment with her PA that day. He had prescribed a diuretic and a steroid taper, which helped some with symptoms. Still, he was concerned that she might be developing heart problems. He consulted the following day with a cardiologist, and finally decided she should go into the ER for further evaluation. The X-ray there showed pneumonia. She was admitted, but came home after only one night. They prescribed an antibiotic. The leaky feeding tube was replaced. A few days later she developed diarrhea, apparently from the antibiotic, and came close to her breaking point again as she tried to deal with this additional problem. I went back to the pharmacy to get Imodium. Thankfully, this helped quite a bit. I noticed, though, that she had trouble processing changes such as having to take the antibiotic and Imodium. Since she can’t take anything by mouth, making changes is admittedly more difficult than it would be for most of us. Still, she struggled more than she used to. She became more emotional when things didn’t go well, I think because she lacked confidence and feared that things would get worse.

Mom had a nurse coming to monitor her and for the first time agreed that it would be best to have a caregiver help her when she takes a shower. This extra support seemed to help her rally. She returned to some approximation of what’s been normal for her over the past year or so. She was even able to cope well with her house losing power after an ice storm and having to stay with my brother for four days. Still, episodes like the one in January are reminders that for an “old elderly” person, the dividing line between coping and not coping may be closer than any of us imagine–in mom’s case, just an infection and some extra loads of laundry away. We the family of the octogenarian/nonagenarian/centenarian need to be both attentive to the possibility that the dividing line can easily be crossed and responsive when that happens. It’s also important to have compassion for their struggles. In a couple decades, maybe less, we’re likely to be where they are. The least we can do is treat them as we would like to be treated when we reach that point.

Mom at home, reading.



Posted in caregiving, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Changed Lines of Generational Power

Atul Gawande. Image from the New York Times review of Being Mortal.

I have been reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a Harvard Professor. He’s a busy guy! His book explores how medical advances have changed aging and death, not always for the better. He starts by discussing traditional ways of living and dying. He notes that the deference and subservience shown to the elderly in traditional societies has changed:

“The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated, and not in the way it is sometimes believed. The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. it demoted the family. It gave people–the young and the old–a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.” p. 22.

I hadn’t thought of modern intergenerational dynamics in quite this way. I knew that for most of human history up until the industrial revolution property constituted the greatest store of wealth and the oldest generation in families held title to property. This left their children and grandchildren beholden to the parents as they worked on the family farm and waited to inherit the property themselves. With the growth of factories and the towns that supported them, the young had new options. This diminished the power that the family head could exercise over his (or in some cases her) offspring. Gawande is suggesting that when this happened it wasn’t so much the parents who lost status and significance but the family itself. Older adults gain in freedom what they lose in power. His assertion makes sense, if only because those with power are always constrained by it. That’s because power isn’t permanent, and there’s always the possibility it will be lost. The powerful thus have to devote their energies to surveillance and sanctions. Losing power over others is liberating both to those who exercise power and those over whom it is exercised.

Gawande suggests that instead of venerating either age or youth, we now venerate the independent self. That’s the self free of constraint, the self freed to embark on journeys of self-discovery or self-fulfillment. Culturally we see that elevation of the independent self in the teenager striving for autonomy or the young adult who leaves familiar haunts so as to have maximum opportunity for self-expression and self-exploration. As Gawande suggests, such valuing of independence and self-discovery can also be found in many middle-aged and older adults also value independence and self-discovery. Certainly that’s one reason why there are significant numbers of people in the second half of life who move to retirement communities in distant states or travel in an RV full-time. They’ve broken (or at least stretched) the ties of family and community to pursue self-focused goals.

In my work as a therapist, I tend to see the disadvantages of societal trends more than I see the advantages. As to the tug-of-war between self and family, I still have clients in families that are too confining, where the patriarch or matriarch exercises excessive control. More often, though older adults and their adult children are too disconnected. The parents struggle with isolation and loneliness, while the children are adrift, lacking the direction and affirmation that they could receive from a structured family setting. And even if both parent and child enjoy independence, that’s not a durable arrangement. As Gawande puts it:

“There remains one problem with this way of living. Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible.” p. 23

I have always been a rather independent person. Over the past several years, though, I’ve moved away from autonomy and towards connectedness. I came back to my home town to help my parents in 2012. I’m still helping my mother, and, in 2018, I bought a house near my son and his family, with plans to move there when my mom no longer needs me. I had plenty of years to appreciate my independence. Recently, I’ve appreciated social and family ties much more. That runs counter to cultural trends, but, for me at least, it seems the better way.


Posted in Culture, Psyche, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Save the World? Don’t Look at Me!

Earlier this year I read Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (San Francisco: Harper One, 2016) by D.L. Mayfield. Mayfield is a young woman of faith who spent much of her early adulthood volunteering with refugees (and their children) who were trying to rebuild their lives after being displaced from their homes. She started out with high hopes that she could convert them to Christianity (most were Muslim) and help them succeed in what was to them an unfathomable culture. She eventually came to see that she could make at best a modest difference in their lives. She also realized that her efforts to help others were more about her than about them:

“Once I thought I was going to save everybody. Through Jesus’s love and homework help, art projects and good literature, church activities and the sheer force of my goodwill. This way of framing life points to the dangerous thinking of the savior complex: I am the sun, and everybody else is just a moon. But of course, I don’t shine so brightly in anyone else’s eyes, and I am learning this slowly.”

I’ve had limited experience volunteering with refugees, but in other ways I’ve been tempted to develop a savior complex. In my 20s, I was trained in psychology, one of the helping professions. Like Mayfield, I was interested in helping everybody–in making them feel better, in changing the way they thought, in teaching them skills that would improve how they functioned in life, in assisting them to find purpose and meaning. I had a toolkit of strategies to use, a store of goodwill towards others, and boundless confidence in my own abilities. Like Mayfield, my interest in helping others masked another interest–in proving myself, in demonstrating how knowledgeable and skillful I was.

I would have eventually figured out I couldn’t save everyone. Thankfully, that realization hit me sooner rather than later. My first full-time therapy job was in a prison–the State Prison of Southern Michigan, now closed but at the time the largest walled prison in the world. My responsibilities included group therapy with sex offenders and with aggressive inmates. Being charitable towards my younger self, I think that my efforts were helpful for a handful of group members. For the majority of them, though, I was no more than a passing breeze, momentarily rippling the psychic surface but having no impact whatsoever on the depths of their dysfunction.

State Prison of Southern Michigan, 1949

I moved on to other jobs after a few years, including a few where I think I made some difference for a substantial portion of those with whom I worked. Still, I’ve always remembered that my best efforts are insufficient in themselves and that people change not because I’ve performed some magic but because I helped them figure out ways to make changes they were already motivated to make.

I also have learned, like Mayfield, that when I focus on proving myself I do a disservice not only to those with whom I work, but also to myself. For I am then living a lie about who I am and what I need to make me whole. Mayfield says this about herself:

“I am poor, in that I do not know how to love people just as they are. I am poor in that I do not know how to love myself if I am not actively giving something. I am poor in that I do not know if I have the strength to see the kingdom of God as it was meant to be played out.”

I have always been poor in the same way. Paradoxically, the times I’ve been the richest spiritually have been when I’ve been able to recognize that poverty. When I partly retired, I experienced the loss of importance and recognition common among those who leave professional-level jobs. Perhaps, though, it’s better to look at this post-retirement era not as loss but as opportunity. I have the opportunity to accept the crumbling of the foundations on which my false self based its sense of worth. It would be a mistake to bolster that false self by desperately trying to be useful to somebody somewhere. Instead, I have the opportunity to accept the limitations of what I can do, to admit like Mayfield that I don’t do a very good job at loving either myself or others. I have the opportunity to be poor. May I have the courage to do just that.

Posted in caregiving, Spirit | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cold Comfort at the Church of the Dancing Girl

I have mixed feelings about attending unfamiliar churches. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see the worship practices of various faith communities and meaningful to join with them in the majestic, never-ending stream of praise that, if the book of Psalms is to believed, flows from and through all creation. On the other hand, I get frustrated trying to follow an unfamiliar liturgy and feel awkward introducing myself to strangers.

Thus, I had mixed feelings as I headed recently to the “dancing girl church”–so dubbed by my daughter-in-law after a visit there a few years ago during which a prepubescent girl danced in the aisles during congregational singing. My daughter-in-law didn’t find that impromptu liturgical dance particularly edifying, and she and her family never went back there. I recently bought a house in Missouri near where they live, and the dancing girl church is near my new home.

I decided at the last minute to attend church that morning. I almost stayed home since I had come down with a cold the day before and hadn’t yet been able to staunch the flow from my nose. I still spend most of my time several hours away, in Michigan, and I already have a church I like there, so one part of me thought I shouldn’t bother looking into churches in my new locale. Perhaps it was mainly habit that pushed me out the door that morning, or perhaps it was my awareness that I’m likely to feel an inner void during the week if I don’t attend a worship service on Sunday. Anyway, I went.

I arrived only a few minutes before the scheduled start time, but the sanctuary was mostly empty when I shuffled in and found a seat on the aisle near the back. On my way in I had been handed a flyer containing the order of worship, and I perused that as congregants slowly dribbled in, coming to rest in the pews. An older woman, perhaps in her mid-80s, slid into the far end of my pew, sat down a couple feet to my right, and introduced herself.

“Hello, I’m Marilyn,” she said, offering her hand.

“I’m Bob,” I replied. “I’ve got a cold, though, so I won’t shake your hand.”

I didn’t want to expose her to my germs, but having an excuse to not take her hand was also convenient, a way to keep a little distance.

The service eventually started with a greeting by the pastor. The musical ensemble off to his right cantered through several songs while the congregation sang along. I knew about half of the songs; I find comfort in such melodic familiarity in a mostly unfamiliar environment. There was no dancing in the aisles; dancing girl must have either been away or retired from dancing. Between songs the pastor delivered a brief meditation about finding God in the midst of our busy lives. Consulting my bulletin, I saw that we had arrived at the “Quiet Minute,” though I noticed that this so-called minute lasted well over 6o seconds.

Before long, we were at the “Talkative Ten Minutes,” a time in the service when the congregation was invited to “take intentional time to risk saying hello to one another.” As soon as this was announced, Marilyn got my attention. She had something to say to me.

“I’m so sorry about your cold,” she started. “When I have a cold I take this product that really helps. It’s called Cold-Ease. I thought I might have some in my purse, but I looked and I don’t. Could I write the name on your bulletin, though?”

Then she did, misspelling “ease” and drawing a box around the name to emphasize it. I thanked her, more appreciative of her evident concern than for the specific suggestion (I was already on Zicam). I talked to a few other people and even found a room upstairs where I could get a little hot tea to soothe my throat.

There was a sermon, a good if a bit redundant meditation on a passage in Proverbs about the destructive and constructive potential of our words. Then the service was over. Marilyn thanked me for coming and encouraged me to get something for my cold; I again expressed my gratitude to her. She had done what the faithful are supposed to do: she welcomed the stranger, offering what succor she could. I probably will return to the church of the dancing girl when I’m in town. For me, though, it deserves a new name. “Cold-ease church” doesn’t sound quite right, but the name should make some reference to how Marilyn reached out to me. I’ve come up with this: “Church of Shelter from the Cold.” I rather like the sound of that.

Posted in Relationships, Spirit | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Grandparent’s Day

Three years ago I wrote a post about visiting my grandkids’ school for Grandparents Day. Last week I went to Grandparents Day again; had gone last year as well, though I didn’t post anything about it on WordPress.

I have three grandchildren who live about 8 hours away from Grand Rapids, where I spend most of my time. Calvin, my oldest grandchild, is now in high school. Last spring I was in town when his middle school had its own Grandparents Day, but Calvin felt uncomfortable with having a grandparent accompany him to classes. Awkwardness is very much a middle school thing. Fortunately, the school administrators had anticipated this possibility, and told the kids that they could take the morning off to spend with whatever grandparents were available. Calvin and I went to Starbucks, where I ordered coffee and he had hot chocolate. He becomes uncommunicative when plied with questions, but converses quite well otherwise. We had a nice talk.

My other two grandchildren are still in elementary school. Theo is a fifth grader, while Willa is in first grade. Unlike Calvin, they were both eager to have Grandpa Bob at school. The activities started with an assembly. Grandparents were seated in sections arranged according to the grade of their youngest grandchild. The children were then escorted one grade at a time from their classrooms to the stage at the front of the auditorium. Each group sang a few songs, then were sent down to sit with their grandparents. Willa’s class sang a patriotic song and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” an American folk song. Willa clearly enjoyed the song, and would sing it again and again over the next few days, changing the lyrics slightly to amuse herself. She had difficulty finding me when the first graders were sent to sit with their grandparents, looking terribly woebegone after a minute or so of searching. I left my seat to retrieve her, then all was well.

Willa and I watched for Theo, and it wasn’t long before he appeared on the stage with a large group of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. They performed a number of songs, including the school anthem, which, after several Grandparents Days, is becoming familiar to me. He found us at the end of the assembly, and we headed off to the next activity.

Our instructions directed us to either the Spirit Shop (where school apparel is sold) or the Book Fair. It wasn’t difficult to figure out why this was on the schedule–some administrator must have figured that parading grandchildren and their grandparents in front of merchandise the grandchildren would like to own is an effective way of extracting grandparent funds for the school coffers. It worked in my case; I bought a book each for Theo and Willa. Willa picked a book that she liked, Theo one that he liked AND that was expensive. Good economic sense, Theo.

After that, I visited each of their classrooms. I met their teachers and a few of their classmates. Willa had some art she had done in preparation for the big day, and the teacher had supplied a couple worksheets for grandchildren and grandparents to do together. Theo had a page of interview questions for me, many of them about my experiences when I was his age or things that are different now than they were then. It was a nice opportunity to talk about how the world has changed over the course of the last 60 years.

School was dismissed before noon. Theo, Willa, and I went to their house, and my son, who was working at home, joined us for lunch.  We spent more time together the next two days, at which point I left for Michigan. I’ll be back often, though, since I’ve bought a house fifteen minutes from where they live.

Whereas Calvin no longer has interest in Grandparents Day (fortunately, he still likes to hang out with his grandparents), it’s as much fun for me as ever. The day is ceremonial in nature–a socially significant event in which the actions of the participants are imbued with special meaning. It’s a celebration of several things–the child’s academic successes, the grandparent’s investment in future generations, and the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. We and they are near opposites when it comes to our place along the human lifespan, but our affection for each other transcends that difference. I am a fortunate man, for I’m a grandpa.

Posted in Relationships | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Recovering From Loss: Giving Back

In his book Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP Books, 2017), Russ Ramsey, pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, tells the story of his encounter with a life-threatening illness. Ramsey developed a persistent fever caused by a blood-borne bacterial infection that attacked his mitral valve. He spent his fortieth birthday awaiting the surgery needed to repair his heart. The surgery saved his life, but beat him up rather severely:

“When I woke from surgery I was a mess. I had a broken sternum, a dead left foot, a malfunctioning brain, gallons of medications pulsing through my body, a puncture wound in my chest from the drainage tube, and the thick fog of sedation still hovering over me.” p. 79

Ramsey details his recovery from these and other afflictions. By the end of the book, two years after his surgery, he has recovered sufficiently to climb a fourteen-thousand foot mountain peak. It was quite a struggle to get to that point, though. Nearing the one year mark, he described the losses he had sustained. His relationships were affected–though others gave support, he felt isolated from them. His body didn’t function for a time. His short-term memory and mental acuity were affected for quite a while. He lost for a time the roles that defined his identity.

Ramsey felt an affinity with a friend whose life was also severely affected by illness. Barbara had been dealing with cancer for five years. After a period of remission, the cancer had returned. In between their respective treatments, Russ and Barbara would meet to compare notes. Barbara had been determined to beat the cancer, and did for a time. Not only did the cancer return, though, it metastasized. Barbara died at home under hospice care. Ramsey worked with her husband John on the funeral arrangements. He had been asked to preside, and assuming that role helped him regain what he had lost:

“Barbara was honoring my life by calling on me to officiate the celebration that marked the end of her suffering. It had been a while since I had stood on such sacred ground, and it occurred to me that her funeral marked a certain milestone in my own recovery. I was now returning to the work of bearing the burdens of others–work I had been unable to do only months before.” p. 126

The experience was one of being restored or healed. For Ramsey, the climax occurred at the graveside, while John was lowering Barbara’s casket into the ground. In a sense, while her body was descending, his soul was being lifted up, as if they were on opposite ends of a teeter-totter. He writes,

“I felt a hibernating sense of purpose come awake. As I looked at his family and at the crowd that had gathered, I considered my role as the officiate of this unfolding drama and I remembered who I am. I am a pastor. I shepherd people’s hearts. This is what I do.”

Ramsey then makes an important point regarding the way in which we move beyond mourning our losses:

“Healthy mourning eventually requires us to not only receive acts of compassion but also to give them…. I had spent the better part of the year mostly on the receiving end of help. This funeral, one year after my affliction, was a significant part of my healing.”

When we see others struggling with loss, we want to come aside them and help them in some way, and that is a good impulse. After a time, they may offer us something in return. We’re often tempted to turn down their offer, encouraging them instead to just focus on their recovery. What we may miss is that helping others as they’ve been helped is part of their recovery. Let’s accept what they offer with gratitude, knowing that in this, too, they are being restored.

Posted in Body, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Living in an Age of Accumulation

George Carlin may be right about a house being a place to keep our stuff, but, nowadays, we’re less inclined to leave home in order to get more stuff. That’s because more stuff regularly appears magically on our doorsteps while we lounge around the house. Online shopping is so easy! In America and other first world countries, this is an age for accumulating stuff. According to a recent article by staff writer Alana Semuels in the Atlantic, Americans in particular are amassing stuff with tremendous ease:

“Before the advent of the internet, we had to set aside time to go browse the aisles of a physical store, which was only open a certain number of hours a day. Now, we can shop from anywhere, anytime—while we’re at work, or exercising, or even sleeping. We can tell Alexa we need new underwear, and in a few days, it will arrive on our doorstep. And because of the globalization of manufacturing, that underwear is cheaper than ever before—so cheap that we add it to our online shopping carts without a second thought.”

And shipping is often free. Online retailer Amazon currently has over 100 million Amazon Prime members, who, among other benefits, pay nothing for two-day shipping. It can even seem frugal to order more stuff to take full advantage of that $119 per year membership fee.

Reading Semuels’ article made me think of a post I wrote a few months ago about the capital vice of greed. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.” Desiring more than what is needed certainly seems to aptly characterize we 21st century American consumers. Here’s what Semuels has to say about our spending habits:

“In 2017, Americans spent $240 billion—twice as much as they’d spent in 2002—on goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, and telephones and related communication equipment, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which adjusted those numbers for inflation. Over that time, the population grew just 13 percent. Spending on personal care products also doubled over that time period. Americans spent, on average, $971.87 on clothes last year, buying nearly 66 garments, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. That’s 20 percent more money than they spent in 2000. The average American bought 7.4 pairs of shoes last year, up from 6.6 pairs in 2000.”

I’ve been trying to imagine a scenario in which someone needed 66 new garments a year, and I can’t, except perhaps an infant quickly outgrowing one size after another. As for 7.4 pairs of shoes, I picture someone with pronated ankles training for a marathon, but how often does that happen? Most of us just want ever-increasing amounts of stuff–all kinds of stuff, stuff we don’t need. Our closets are full, our landfills overflow, and storage-unit rental is at an all-time high.

Paradoxically, as we gain possessions we lose that which is of much greater importance. As I pointed out in the earlier post, greed impoverishes us spiritually. We seek to be self-sufficient, relying on ourselves for everything and on God for nothing. As a result, our relationship with him atrophies.

A few months ago I sold the house I had for 12 years with the intent of moving nearer one of my sons and his family. I had donated quite a bit of furniture, clothes, and the like in preparation for the move. Still, as I packed up my things and put them in storage, it seemed like I had lots more stuff than a single, 70-year-old man has need of. When I then looked for houses in the area to which I hoped to move, one consideration was how big a house I should buy in order to accommodate my possessions. Houses less than about 900 square feet didn’t seem quite big enough. I ended up making an offer on a house with 1,250 square feet–about 500 square feet less than what I had had before, but still rather big for one person. I’m hoping that, once I move in, I’ll only buy what I need and will in fact continue to prune away what I’ve accumulated over the years.

Ridding myself of the material things I don’t need is a sort of spiritual discipline, an emptying of that which might preoccupy me in order that I can become more receptive to what I do need. I’m hopeful to continue the process of material simplification, yet also mindful that I’ll have to swim against the cultural current in order to be successful. I promise to update readers about how I’m doing!

Posted in Culture, Psyche | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Lust

I’ve been writing about the seven deadly sins, using as my basis the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I’m especially interested in how these harmful habits manifest themselves in those of us who are past midlife. This post is on lust.

Having lust as one of the capital vices by no means denigrates the value of healthy sexuality. It’s not sexual desire in itself that is wrong but the distortion or elevation of that desire. How does sexual desire most easily go wrong? DeYoung suggests the following:

“Good Sex has an interpersonal and social dimension, a dimension that brings us into connection and relationship with others. Lust is deformed sexual desire because it cuts us off from this potential. Sexual desire is meant ultimately to bring us into a union of intimacy with another person.” (p. 163)

Lust, then, is dehumanizing. It treats the other person as an object for one’s gratification, not as a unique and precious person. Sexual fulfillment is reduced to pursuit of my own personal pleasure, regardless of the well-being of the other. When I lust, I am not vulnerable to the other, not truly seeking connection. Though I may be unclothed in front of my partner, I’m not naked in the sense of being open and defenseless in his or her presence, since I have mentally transformed that person to a mere thing that I intend to use for my own enjoyment. As DeYoung explains, lust is also prideful in that I am using sexuality as part of my self-centered project to achieve my own happiness apart from anyone else, including God.

Lust thus reduces sexuality to physical pleasure and the partner to something less than human. Paradoxically, there’s also a sense in which lust elevates sexuality past the physical and makes the partner more than human. I’m thinking of a client I once had who compulsively pursued women, one after another. He showered them with attention, gifts, and flattery. He was sexually attracted to them, but hardly ever pursued them to the point of having a sexual relationship. Instead, what he was really after was having an attractive female come to find him desirable and reciprocate his attention. Once that happened, he quickly lost interest. It was evident that he had inner feelings of inadequacy that his conquests were aimed at assuaging. Each woman he pursued was like a goddess to him, a deity who could lift him to wholeness by her attention. It was not physical pleasure that he was after but a blessing from an exalted being that would make him whole. Of course, the feeling of wholeness always eluded him, so his pursuit continued. Speaking personally, when I’ve fallen into lust I think I’ve been closer to this specious pursuit of blessing than to merely chasing after pleasure.

So how about lust in the elderly? On the one hand, trying to prove oneself via sexual exploits seems more a characteristic of the young than the old. It may be that at least some of us learn via experience that we can’t achieve happiness by sexually exploiting others. On the other hand, there are some cultural stereotypes about excessive sexual behavior in older men in particular that may have some kernel of truth. I’m referring here both to the man in a midlife crisis who chases young women and to the “dirty old man” whose lecherousness doesn’t diminish with age. Harvey Weinstein, whose sexual predation is now legendary, is 66, hardly young.

I don’t know of any statistics comparing the amount of lust in adults of various ages. There are statistics on internet porn use, which in all likelihood is motivated by lust–it certainly has the features of excessive focus on one’s own pleasure and proclivity to dehumanize the other person. A 2014 nationwide survey conducted by the Barna group on behalf of Proven Men found that the percentage of men of various ages reporting that they viewed porn at least monthly were as follows:

  • 18-30 year olds, 79%
  • 31-49 year olds, 67%
  • 50-68 year olds, 50%

For viewing pornography several times a week, the percentages were:

  • 18-30-year-olds, 63%
  • 31-49-year-olds, 38%
  • 50-68-year-olds, 25%

For women, the percentage viewing porn at least monthly were:

  • 18-30 year olds, 34%
  • 31-49 year olds, 12%
  • 50-68 year olds 10%

So the good news in these results is that pornography use declines with age. The bad news is that, among older men, half still view pornography on at least a semi-regular basis and one-quarter look at porn quite frequently. Since porn viewing is only one of several ways that lust can manifest itself, it seems safe to say that quite a few older adults experience it.

At least among the oldest old, some cases of excessive sexual interest aren’t the result of lust but of brain deterioration. Sexual acting out is a problem in dementia units, for example. Elizabeth Marcus wrote a poignant essay about her father, who at age 88 became preoccupied with finding sexual gratification despite having no prior history of excessive focus on that area. After his death, she did research into such behavior changes in the elderly and makes a case that he probably had frontal lobe dementia.

Even after excluding such biologically based cases, lust is a significant problem for some who are elderly. Older adults who have a decades-long history of lust have in all likelihood developed a well-entrenched habit that will be difficult to change. That’s the way the vices work; they are initially voluntary, but, indulged in repeatedly, they take root in such a way that they are hard to dislodge. Recovery from this, and from all the capital vices, may seem impossible. Still, there’s hope for all of us, even if the journey isn’t completed in this lifetime. We can start by taking the first step, knowing that help will be available along the road.

Posted in Psyche, Spirit | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Seven Deadly Sins for Seniors: Gluttony

I’ve been writing about the seven deadly sins, using as my basis the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I’m especially interested in how these harmful habits manifest themselves in those of us who are past midlife. This post is on gluttony.

From Party Ideas by a Pro

The term gluttony is derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow. It’s essence is not primarily centered in how much we eat but in how much pleasure we take in eating. The glutton is overly focused on achieving maximal pleasure; he or she is looking to be satisfied. Gluttony tries to achieve ultimate fulfillment from food and drink, things that are only capable of providing partial and temporary fulfillment. As DeYoung points out, excessively seeking such satisfactions has spiritual consequences:

“Satisfying our desire for the pleasure of eating doesn’t ‘fill up’ the whole person. Our spiritual desires are left empty. If we leave those desires unfilled long enough, we tend to lose sight of them and become overly preoccupied with only physical desires in an escalating and futile cycle of avoiding spiritual starvation by indulging ourselves physically.”

So gluttony is detrimental to our spirits, depriving them of needed sustenance. It is also detrimental to our bodies, in that habitually choosing foods on the basis of how much pleasure they will provide can negatively impact our health. Such health problems lead many of us who are older to be more cautious about what we consume than we were when the bodily effects weren’t as immediate or clear-cut. Thus, superficially at least, the eating behavior of older adults may give less evidence of gluttony than that of younger adults. This may be misleading, though. As mentioned above, gluttony primarily concerns not what we eat but what motivates our eating. Do we put too much emphasis on the pleasure of eating, even if we choose healthy foods and don’t consume too much? Are our lives centered around our appetites or around loving God and others?

Gluttonous eating can take a variety of forms. St. Gregory the Great parsed them as follows:

“The vice of gluttony tempts us in five ways. Sometimes it forestalls the hour of need; sometimes it seeks costly meats; sometimes it requires the food to be daintily cooked; sometimes it exceeds the measure of refreshment by taking too much; sometimes we sin by the very heat of an immoderate appetite.”

In the middle ages, these various forms of eating were described as eating too hastily, too sumptuously, too daintily, too much, and too greedily. Emily Stimpson Chapman, author of The Catholic Table, succinctly summarizes these as follows: “we commit the sin of gluttony when we eat before we’re hungry (hastily); when we regularly or exclusively dine on only the most expensive and richest foods (sumptuously); when we overeat (too much); when we take more than our fair share (greedily); and when we insist upon eating only certain foods or refuse foods not grown, prepared or served in specific ways (daintily).”

Perhaps we older adults aren’t as prone as we once were to eat too much, but that still leaves plenty of other ways to manifest gluttony. For me, eating hastily–when I’m not hungry–is probably the biggest temptation. Usually that happens when I’m bored or restless. Some older adults eat too sumptuously. They can afford to buy the best and do so on a regular basis, often at expensive restaurants where a single meal can cost what someone could eat well on for a week. Among our ranks are also plenty of dainty eaters, those who are overly fastidious about what they consume. Such fastidiousness is not limited to those who desire to eat something exquisite. DeYoung quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters concerning an old woman who turns down whatever her hostess offers, sighing:

“Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teaniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.”

Because what she wants isn’t costly or unusual, she can’t see how she is controlled by (and in turn seeks to control others in the service of) getting exactly what she wants, even if it is disruptive for others.

If we want to avoid the various forms of gluttony, what guidelines should we follow when we eat? DeYoung cites Augustine’s dictum that we eat whatever and however much we want as long as we eat in a way appropriate to our health, to our community, and to our vocation. Older adults are most used to focusing on the first of these, eating in ways that promote our health. What about the other two?

Younger adults often have as their eating community a family that includes children, so consideration of the needs of the community means making sure that the children get enough food, have healthy choices, and have good eating modeled for them. We older adults are less likely to eat with children and may give less thought to community, but that is probably a mistake. Whomever we eat with, it is good to focus on the ways in which serving food to others and being served by them is a primary way of showing and receiving caring or concern. Even those of us who often eat alone can be community-oriented. For example, we can think of the needs of the hungry throughout the world and how the food choices of the well-to-do affect the poor’s access to adequate nutrition.

What about eating in light of our vocation? DeYoung gives the example of a Marine who brought her an MRE, the packaged meals designed to provide nourishment to soldiers in the field. She suggests that, like marines, Christians have a mission in the world and may need to shape their consumption around that mission. Depending on circumstances, that could entail fasting, eating simple prepared foods when there isn’t much time for food preparation, or having celebratory feasts. This suggestion about eating in consonance with one’s mission also pertains to older adults who are Christians. Research into adult development suggests that it is important for adults past midlife to have a sense of mission that goes beyond oneself. According to Harvard researcher George Vaillant, from midlife on generativity becomes important. That is, the aging adult starts thinking of ways in which they can leave a legacy or benefit subsequent generations. A decade or two later, many older adults become keepers of meaning–those who transmit the community’s or culture’s values and traditions to future leaders. Both generativity and keeping meaning are vocations that may affect when, what, and with whom the person eats. Pleasure is no longer the primary consideration of what we eat or how we spend our time. Freed from gluttony, we can make a difference in the world that will outlive us.

Posted in Body, Spirit | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seniors Without Savings

I’ve written previously about the difficulties faced by older adults who haven’t saved for retirement. For example, in this post from 2013 I wrote about the large numbers of Americans who will either have to delay retirement or work during retirement in order to make ends meet. In 2015 I wrote about William McPherson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist who at age 81 was impoverished and had to depend on his daughter for such expenses as major dental work. Not surprisingly, as the numbers of elderly grows, the problem of elders living in poverty is also growing. A recent article by  Atlantic staff writer Alana Semuels provides information on poverty in elderly Americans. She notes that the poverty rate among seniors is increasing:

Older Americans were the only demographic for whom poverty rates increased in a statistically significant way between 2015 and 2016, according to Census Bureau data. While poverty fell among people 18 and under and people 18 to 64 between 2015 and 2016, it rose to 14.5 percent for people over 65, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is considered a more accurate measure of poverty because it takes into account health-care costs and other big expenses.

The trends which have contributed to this increase in poverty among older adults will continue for the foreseeable future. Fewer and fewer employers offer pensions. According to Census Bureau researchers, two-thirds of Americans don’t contribute anything to a retirement plan. Last decade’s housing bust wiped out or greatly reduced the equity many middle-aged or elderly workers had in their homes. Work has become less stable, and periods of unemployment can rapidly deplete savings. Many retirees end up trying to live on Social Security alone, but the average benefit falls well short of what most people need to cover basic expenses. It’s hard to argue with Semuels when she states, ” The current wave of senior poverty could just be the beginning.”

In this environment, I’m one of the fortunate ones. I recently sold my house, getting quite a bit less for it than what I paid in 2006, but walking away with enough that I should be able to buy a modest home near one of my children. I get more than the average Social Security benefit and have sufficient savings that I can cover not only my regular monthly expenses but additional expenses like car repairs and taxes. I work about 10 hours a week; the extra money is nice, but I don’t have to rely on it.

In contrast, many older adults are struggling to make ends meet. Semuels tells of Roberta Gordon, who worked a variety of jobs through the years–nursing aide, telemarketer, librarian, house cleaner–but never earned a pension, didn’t manage to save anything, and at some jobs didn’t even pay into the Social Security system. At age 76, her monthly income of $915 from Social Security and SSI didn’t even cover her rent. She worked every Saturday handing out samples at the local grocery store, but still couldn’t meet her expenses.

Telling people that they should save more for retirement tends not to be helpful; most people who aren’t saving know they should, and many make plans to do so, but low wages, periods of unemployment, medical expenses, car repairs and the like work against them. It hasn’t helped that the very modest government programs that were available to help people save are being cut back or eliminated. And seniors like Roberta Gordon who are already retired and living in poverty can’t benefit from programs aimed at helping working-age adults save. What can make retirement more affordable? Semuels suggests such public policies as “expanding affordable housing options, creating programs to help seniors cover medical costs, and reforming the Supplemental Security Income program so that poor seniors can receive more benefits.” The first of these is what helped Roberta Gordon. She received a form of housing assistance known as a Section 8 Voucher, which substantially reduced her rent.

Unfortunately, Section 8 is plagued with problems. There are long wait times to obtain vouchers, and much of the housing available to voucher-holders is substandard. Could our nation improve Section 8 and also create or expand programs to reduce the financial burden on impoverished seniors? Sure. But that would take political will, and it would take money. Do we value the well-being of the elderly as much or more than we value shrinking government and reducing taxes? I wish the answer was ‘yes’, but I fear it is ‘no’.

Substandard Housing in West Virginia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in Culture, Resources | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment