Today we are pleased to host Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold for a Q&A session as he discusses his newest work, Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life. His book offers sage advice, both for elders and their caregivers, about the upside to growing older and how to find meaning in the challenges of this time of life. Since many of us are either caring for aging parents or are getting on in years ourselves, let’s begin.
Mentors: Thank you for agreeing to participate in our Virtual Book Tour today. There is a multibillion dollar anti-aging industry trying to keep us young. Yet in Rich in Years, you suggest that trying to stay young is the worst way to grow old. Why?
Johann Arnold: Yes, there is an entire industry dedicated to making us look younger than we are. But who are we fooling, and what are we ashamed of? We seem to think we can live forever and pride ourselves on pushing the limits of age, but by doing so we push God out of our lives. Instead of worrying about trying to stay young we should enjoy the riches that old age offers. And instead of trying to extend life’s length, we should be concerned with deepening life’s meaning.
Mentors: You write that our society idolizes youth and measures a person’s worth based on what they can do. How can we value age more, and the wisdom that only comes with years?
Pastor Arnold: Whether they think so or not, people who have weathered many storms possess much wisdom, which they need to share. A valuable service we can provide is our experience with life’s many difficult questions. As young people embark on the journey of life and begin to hit rough patches, we can offer balance and reassurance.
Mentors: In Rich in Years, you have collected stories of people who continue to love life regardless of their health or circumstances. What’s their secret?
Pastor Arnold: Those who retain a sense of adventure as their health declines will be able to face the indignities of old age with grace and good humor. I include some wonderful stories in my book of old friends who kept their positive attitude until the end. But of course, embracing the aging process and the approaching end of our life is never easy.
I tell people growing older can be a gift, but only if we surrender ourselves to God’s plan. Then we can stop complaining about things we can’t do anymore and realize that God is finding new ways to use us. Even with our physical and mental abilities curtailed, we have many opportunities to work for humanity and for God’s kingdom on earth.
Mentors: What are some of the unique ways older people can contribute to society?
Pastor Arnold: I’ve seen, countless times, how people my age do important things. I often think of the many grandmothers holding families together and all the grandfathers serving on boards or committees without pay. They spend many hours in service at church, with their Rotary club or veterans’ organization, or the local soup kitchen – and often care for grandchildren while their own children are at work, unable to afford day care. The services these people perform are invaluable, and not only in terms of what is produced; much of what the elderly contribute cannot be measured in dollars and cents. It can be as simple as spending time with a child, offering an encouraging word, or lending a listening ear. Even if you can’t do anything else, you can still pray for others. As Pope Benedict once said, “The prayers of the elderly can protect the world.”
Mentors: Loneliness affects everyone, but especially the old. How can we combat this? What can we do to bring young and old together, and keep our families and communities integrated?
Pastor Arnold: In each of us, there is a longing to live in community, to share whatever we have with others. God created us as communal beings, not as hermits. It does not matter whether we are old or young, sick or healthy. We belong together, and this togetherness brings fulfillment. We innately know this, of course. Many veterans tell me they returned for multiple tours of duty overseas because of the sense of family and community they felt with their fellow soldiers. Former gang members have also told me that their “street family” was closer and stronger than their biological family.
As society becomes more fragmented, it is often the old who suffer most. In my experience, they need to live in communal settings, where they can not only be looked after, but also continue to contribute and love and share.
Mentors: In four decades as a pastor you’ve accompanied many people through difficult moments in life. What can caregivers and family do to help the elderly at such times?
Pastor Arnold: We all wish to die peacefully, but how do we find this peace? True peace requires effort. Sometimes old hurts or past grudges are deeply buried in our subconscious, but they are still there, separating us from other people. We can choose to let these sleeping dogs lie, or we can choose to confront them. The first choice is certainly easier, but I have found that those who take the harder path often end up better equipped to face their future. They’re not weighed down by burdens of the past. Sadly, too many people never experience this, spending their last years in bitterness. I have seen the lives of the most beautiful people ruined because they could not forgive.
Mentors: Our thanks to you, Pastor Arnold, for sharing your thoughts with us today. Readers, now you have the chance to ask questions you may be having about healthy aging and finding meaning in your own lives. Use the “Leave a Reply” section to make a comment or ask a question.