I received a poignant email from Sally, an old friend who had just stumbled across Fierce with Age, my online Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration and Spirituality:
I turned 65 and instantly became depressed. But seems like you’ve got a handle on this aging thing. How is that you have avoided despair, regret and questions about the meaning of life?
Her question gave me pause for thought. Anyone who has read my memoir about the year I spent facing the fear of aging, Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn, knows that I’ve avoided precisely none of these things. For me, it was turning 63, coupled with losing what was then my gig as a Boomer marketing expert to someone who not only looked twenty years younger than myself, but who could say “60 is the new 40” with a straight face.
On top of everything, my husband and I had recently relocated from Los Angeles to New York, Dan rushing to his new job every day leaving me home alone in Brooklyn with too much time on my hands. For much of the year, I struggled with the issues associated with aging, from marginalization and physical diminishment, to seeking answers to Big Questions about life purpose and mortality. In fact, not only did I not avoid despair—I plunged headfirst into its very heart.
But here’s the thing. Breaking denial that I would be young forever–facing my fears and allowing myself to grieve the losses–transformed me. As I wrote in my memoir: “What choice is there? To be fully alive, we must take on the task of engaging with the circumstances of our lives–no matter how trivial, awesome, or threatening–without malice, greed, or voluntary ignorance. Rather, we must become brave enough to tell the truth about pain and joy, life and aging, loss and death. Do so, and on the wild side of midlife, we have the opportunity to embark upon a new phase of life, no longer ashamed or depleted about aging, but rather, curious and excited.”
In an anti-aging society that equates young with good, old with bad, this willingness to embrace the whole spectrum of the human experience requires no less than a leap of faith. But paraphrasing Einstein, this goes to the heart of the most critical question any of us must ultimately ask and answer for ourselves: Do I believe this is a loving universe—or not?
While I have had a life-long spiritual practice, aging raised the stakes regarding what it would take for me to have faith, and just when I needed it most. Having moved far from my spiritual and emotional network, I was literally disconnected from the retreat center I loved, everyday face-to-face contact with old friends and participation with my religious community. In fact, it was a substantial way into the year before I remembered that I’d even forgotten to ask God for help.
While this period of estrangement felt deeply personal to me, in my role as an expert on adult spiritual development, I now recognize that a loss of continuity with one’s spiritual base is far from the exception to the rule as we age. For instance, I watched my own mother make a late-in-life move into an assisted living facility which had superior medical services, but was spotty at best when it came to pastoral care. Suffering from macular degeneration, she could no longer read the Bible or inspirational books, and attending religious services outside the facility was not an option.
But as my own story illustrates, spiritual discontinuity is not reserved for the very old. A whole new generation of my peers is just now grappling with the unexpected spiritual and emotional consequences of making both unwanted and self-chosen changes in our lives, such as moving to a new location to downsize or retire. And, too, old friends move away and sadly, our generation is already no stranger to the losses associated with illness and death.
It took a year to recover from my move to New York and recreate a web of spiritual support not only for myself, but others. Fierce with Age, both the digest and the memoir, were birthed during this period. And happily, I eventually replaced my gig as a Boomer marketing expert with something that I find much more meaningful. I am now executive director of CoroFaith:mFaith, the first mHealth app to provide personalized audio spiritual and religious continuity for individuals from a broad range of traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and more over smart phones. Early adopters include professionals for use in the long-term care and aging-in-place communities. But I also curated the spiritual and religious content of CoroFaith to address my own aging generation’s needs, as well. I find peace knowing that unlike my mother, I am able to stay connected to my spiritual roots come what may.
Research affirms my conviction of the importance of providing spiritual and religious support to individuals as we age. For instance, recent studies show an inverse correlation between anxiety and religion in older persons, improvement in recall through meditation and an enhanced ability to cope with pain and illness. An eight-decade Stanford University based research study found that for women, especially, there is a positive correlation between religious inclination and a long, healthy life.
I took my time responding to my friend Sally’s email. Along with the kind of personal things old friends say to one another at times like these, I sent her a quote from one of my favorite authors, Joan Chittister, from her book Gift of Years:
Now we are beyond the narcissism of youth, above the survival struggles of young adulthood, beyond the grind of middle age, and prepared to look beyond ourselves into the very heartbeat of life. Now we can let our spirits fly. We can do what our souls demand that fully human beings do. This is the moment for which we were born.
I told my friend that the most important thing I’ve learned is that if you are only looking for peace and comfort, you are missing your opportunity. This is the time in our lives to be not only old, but fierce. And for this, I give thanks.