The Travails of Aging (4): Mental & Socio-emotional Aspects

There are no easy answers to the mental and socio-emotional aspects of aging and there’s no one-size-fits-all and no one-time solutions either. The struggles have to be grappled with continually, but the process can often yield meaning and purpose as well as growth in emotional maturity. They also often point us to God and to the practice of spirituality. Below is my attempt to deal with three issues I raised in my last reflection, and hopefully point us to the right direction and/or person.

Loneliness is a human need that no number of friends can fill – an innate loneliness that is in reality, a spiritual hunger and a divine restlessness. You have heard it said (or quoted many times), that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him” (Augustine). Only when we know deep down in our hearts that we are God’s beloved can we see our loneliness for what it is – our restlessness for God and his love. Only his love can assuage our isolation and feelings of loneliness or abandonment.

It is significant that when David made his lonely cry, God gave him no earthly friends – only himself. As David said, “It is you alone who know my way” [Psalm 142:3]. Only God knew where David was, only God cared. When we are stripped of every human friend, we find ourselves enfolded in the love of God.

I have two favourite metaphors of Christ, one as our high priest and the other as our friend. Hebrews 4:15 make it clear – “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with all our weaknesses (struggles).” As our high priest, Christ understands. He was despised and rejected – looked down on and passed over. And his rejection, like ours, caused him deep sorrow, for he was fully human (though fully God) and felt the entire range of human emotions. He is acquainted with grief and was called, “a man of sorrows.”

He is also our friend. He also made that clear: “I no longer call you servant … Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). The hymn, “what a friend we have in Jesus!” is one of my favourites, and is most comforting. Knowing Christ is our friend though, we may still want earthly friends, but we do not crave them. We can also be a friend rather than need one.

Aging people can also live with regrets and guilt (or shame). They wished they could live life over again and think they could do better. Chances are – not likely, as we are humans born with the same depravity and have certain personality vulnerabilities; thus, we tend to make the same mistake. Some sins seem to have irreparably stricken and cripple us; however, they are not beyond the grace and mercy of God. Beyond the bad news of our failure is the good news of grace and forgiveness.

However, that is not always easy to embrace. Sometimes we get downcast in our sins and failures, struggling in discouragement and defeat that grows from our over-scrupulous self-examination and morbid fixation with our guilt. Like Peter who was humiliated by his sin and failure, we give up on ourselves. Peter wondered whether his failure (denial) has disqualified him and rendered him useless. The answer is that it does. Forgiveness and renewal are always at hand if we are truly repentant. God is not after perfection (that awaits heaven) but the humility that comes from self-awareness. We need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven.

Some older folks also struggle with regrets in terms of, “I have wasted so much of my life – can I still be of use?” One of the saddest thoughts of old people is – “it might have been.” “If only” I had nurtured certain relationships, finished certain projects, made certain decisions. Others have gone through a series of trials and tragedies.

A good example is that of Joseph. In Egypt, his life was series of tragedies and indignities. Tempted by a determined seductress who, when spurned, accused him of rape. He was tried, convicted, imprisoned, and left to languish in isolation for a dozen years or more, forgotten by family and friends. Yet, in the end, bitterness was transformed into forgiveness and love.

His firstborn son was named, Manasseh, Hebrew meaning “caused to forget” – for God had made me forget all my troubles. Not that his memory was erased but God taught him to look at his past in a redemptive way. Joseph came to see that God’s hand controlled all that he bore, and he learned that God’s ways were “perfect” (Gen 50:20).

The past cannot be changed but it can be redeemed. Quoting Augustine again: He permits evil to transform it into good. We can see God’s providence in every event, even in our mistakes and people’s malice. Our God of love and wisdom can take the worst and turn it into eternal good. We may not see or know the good until we step into eternity, but it is certain – as certain as God’s lovingkindness or faithfulness. So, God wastes nothing – mistakes, failures, trials and tragedies. When acknowledged, they humble us and make us more approachable, and more useful to God and others. We also feel forgiven and loved!

Certainly, there is some cognitive loss as we age. As noted in the last reflection, we tend to forget, our memory is less clear, our thoughts are less cogent and arguments less compelling. There can also be memory impairment and disturbances as we find it hard to recall names of friends and relatives, get disoriented in time and space. All these can further deteriorate into dementia and Alzheimer.

There is apparently no cure for Alzheimer’s but some dementing conditions may be treatable, e.g., if due to brain tumour. More commonly, medications are prescribed to control disturbed behaviours like agitation, aggressive outbursts, and psychotic experiences like delusions. These are not within my purview but the purview of psychiatrists. I can only recommend two ways to help maintain our mental acuity.

The 1st, and my favourite, is reading. I am an avid reader and self-confessed book-addict! Reading engages the mind and ignites the imagination. And mental stimulation is important as we age, for our minds, like our muscles, atrophy if we don’t use them. Reading can help us keep our minds nimble, flexible and strong.

My 2nd recommendation is to journal or write our own story. As we age, it makes a lot of sense to reflect and look back, to recall God’s goodness and faithfulness, even in the midst of all our problems and troubles.

It’s important to think about our experiences and view them in the light of the whole of life’s journey. We may then see that some event that caused great pain also brought great blessings to us and to others. And as we do so we can also become of aware of and rely on the love God has for us, his enduring love.

Thinking of the past does not remove, however, our sufferings or disappointment, but it can change the way we look at them. Younger folks may not fully understand why older ones return to the distant past, but such reflections have its place. When done in thanksgiving and prayer it can be a source of wonderment and healing.

Perhaps someday someone (hopefully, our children at least!) will read our story and by God’s grace, make something out of it. In so doing we leave a legacy of faith and love.