61055

Growing older without getting old: What Church leaders and research have taught me about ‘living longer’

by | May 20, 2021

Some people dread getting old. They focus on the limitations rather than the possibilities of aging. The actress Bette Davis, seeing few film roles from her agent and more wrinkles in the mirror, famously said to a reporter during a newspaper interview, “Old age ain’t for sissies.”

Yet, we all grow older—or at least hope to do so. And more of us are growing older and living longer than ever before. More than 75 million Americans—almost 22% of us—are over age 60 according to the 2020 US Census.

 In the October 1974 general conference, Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone shared a quote from Stephen Horn, the president of California State University suggesting that we even revise the negative connotations of “old” by replacing it with “living longer” and emphasize the value that experience brings rather than declining physical abilities.

The inaugural issue of the Church's Liahona magazine in 2021 began a new monthly department with each issue called “Aging Faithfully.” The section tries to find the right balance between the joys and challenges of “living longer.” Some of these articles talk about how aging brings an “empty nest” when children are gone or describe the loss of opportunities that comes with aging while others talk about learning new skills such as playing the piano for the first time.

Life brings changes at any age. Some events are markers of age, especially early in life: baptism, Primary graduation, a mission. Other milestones are more versatile, more flexible—and age can seem little more than just a number as each new birthday rolls around. While aging is inevitable, getting old is very much a state of mind. Those who embrace this new chapter in life find many unexplored paths for creativity and fulfillment, while those who walk backward into the future find it lonely and foreboding.

Elder Boyd K. Packer suggested in a general conference address that even as we grow older “there is so much to do and so much to be. Do not withdraw into a retirement from life, into amusement. That, for some, would be useless, even selfish.” And while being released and given emeritus status as a General Authority, Elder Robert L. Backman said, “I look forward to new experiences, new adventures, new horizons, new worlds to conquer. I look forward to new opportunities to grow physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. . . . So many of us are afraid to leave our ‘comfort zones’ and thus cheat ourselves of some of the greatest adventures of our lives.”

Sister Barbara Smith, Relief Society General President, echoed a similar sentiment when she said at general conference that “many different circumstances and factors affect the quality of a person’s life in the later years. But there is a corollary between preparing for old age and enjoying it when it comes.”

Following my own retirement and later release as a mission president, I found myself unexpectedly alone following my wife’s passing. My children rallied around me with many of their own suggestions on what I should do next. “What a role reversal,” I thought. They are giving me the kind of advice I gave them when they returned from their missions and started college and careers!

While working at BYU as an affiliate associate professor at the Ballard Center for Social Impact, I’ve made a concentrated effort to understand what those in my age demographic find both frustrating and fulfilling. I’m the architect of a survey among 2,300 St. George residents on physical, social, and financial health as well as the Founder of “School in the Sky” which connects mentors in the US with school children in Ghana.

So what prospects does “living longer” bring and how do we, as the Psalmist suggested, “still bear fruit in old age, healthy and green”? (Psalm 92:14).

What’s a Body to Do?

Health surveys abound. After reviewing dozens of them, researchers at the University of Illinois concluded “Overall, age is a very imprecise predictor of health . . . Instead, different people appear to be experiencing widely different health trajectories with widely different health outcomes at the same age.”

What does it take not only to make it to our 80’s but also to be healthy along the way and “enjoy the ride”? Some things are well-known, but maybe there are a few surprises as well. Take exercise for instance. The National Cancer Institute is now reporting that exercise isn’t nearly as important for good health as movement. Contrasting the two, they note that an hour or so a day of vigorous exercise followed by sedentary inactivity is far less important to healthy living than constant and regular movement throughout the day: walking, stretching, gardening, dancing—even just standing up versus sitting down most of the day can make a huge difference in physical health over time.

We know through the gospel that the body, mind, and spirit are interconnected, so benefits from physical activity naturally spill over to other aspects of our lives. As the Doctrine and Covenants notes: “For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:33).

In a recent devotional address, Bishop Gérald Caussé emphasized this interconnection by noting how even the words we use show how related our minds, bodies, and spirit are:

To suffocate, to feel oppressed, to be a bundle of nerves, to have a knot in one’s stomach, to jump for joy, or to be tickled pink—all these expressions rightly reference the constant interrelationship between the spirit and the body. Our inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions translate most often into physical sensations—whether positive or negative.

► You may also like: Bishop Caussé on the pursuit of a beautiful soul instead of a beautiful body

The importance of taking good care of our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs is even described in the General Handbook of Instructions with suggestions to eat well, exercise often, and take care of our minds and bodies.

A primary reason for earth life is to gain a mortal body. It will wear out one day, all of us will eventually leave mortality. In the meantime, keep moving!

Family Connections and Consequential Strangers

Much has been written in the news media about the loss of social connections due to pandemic restrictions. With facemasks, sheltering in place, and Zoom broadcasts replacing in-person Church meetings, there clearly is a significant loss of face-to-face contact for most of us. Some people have remained sequestered in their homes with limited direct contact with others much of the past year due to their compromised health. Disruption, isolation, and restrictions abound.

Restoring social connections is important for all of us, but more so for older adults. Technology can help. For the past year, our extended family has met weekly over Zoom to share family highlights, mingle together, and discuss Come Follow Me insights. With a wide age range among grandchildren, finding the right topics and holding each person’s interest has not been easy. We’ve evolved from giving lessons to sharing 1–2 insights among family members. We’ve also encouraged younger children to plan skits and host occasional TikTok dance parties for all of us: young and old alike!

President Ezra Taft Benson encouraged those of us who have “lived longer” to find creative ways to extend ourselves to others rather than fret about being alone: “The key to overcoming aloneness and a feeling of uselessness is to step outside yourself by helping others who are truly needy. We promise those who will render this kind of service that, in some measure, you will be healed of the loss of loved ones or the dread of being alone. The way to feel better about your own situation is to improve someone else’s circumstances.”

New research suggests that connecting with “consequential strangers,” people we may know only casually in the neighborhood or in other social circles, has an enormous impact on us. According to Karen Fingerman’s book Consequential Strangers, these more informal relationships expose us to ideas, diversions, and activities that redirect some of the tedium and isolation we face during lockdowns and quarantines. And—get this—researchers have found that talking to strangers gives us the same emotional benefits as acts of service or kindness. In other words, striking up a conversation with someone we don’t know well but who is still very trustworthy, can give us the same emotional and spiritual lift as mowing our neighbor’s lawn, taking them freshly baked cookies, or watching their kids while they run to the store. Maybe it’s more than okay to talk to strangers, maybe it can even be good for us!

Find Your Silver Linings

Harold Glen Clark, former Provo Utah Temple President, cited some of the ways that friends and acquaintances had started something new after their traditional retirement. Among other examples, he told of two who had turned hobbies into thriving businesses:

Brother Albert Atwood retired years ago in Castro Valley, California, but planned a dynamic maturity by collecting and selling wild flower, tree, and shrub seeds. It became a fascinating, thriving business-hobby while he continued his Church service.

A retired couple, the Sedgwicks of Provo, not only work in the temple, but have founded a mini-business by turning a common household freezer into a bread mixer at a small cost.

Such activities can become “a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age” (Ruth 4:15). This focus on both continually learning and giving back is sometimes called generativity and is increasingly acknowledged as the key to growing older successfully. Instead of seeing aging as merely dodging physical and mental ailments or having enough money and time for hobbies or travel, it flips the narrative by looking at what makes life meaningful. It's about considering “Have I done any good in the world today?” not merely getting the most from personal entertainment.

Continuing the Legacy

Like runners in a relay race, life is about “passing the baton” successfully to family members as well as friends. I loved the comment I heard from a Church leader some years ago in response to a friend commenting that it must be satisfying to see how her children had all become contributing adults: “No, not yet,” she replied. “I’m not finished until I see how my grandchildren turn out!”

Grandparents can have a unique role in the lives of their adult children and grandchildren if they are willing to remain flexible about boundaries and experiment with various activities. Grandma Camps, family rituals, holiday celebrations, and gospel participation are all opportunities to connect and collaborate as major events occur. In April 1953, President David O. McKay, as the 77-year-old President of the Church (who would live until age 96), quoted University of Massachusetts Humanities professor R. J. Sprague:

Every period of human life is wonderful; the irresponsible age of childhood, the thrilling years of adolescence and courtship, the productive, struggling, burden-bearing era of parenthood; but the most wonderful time of life comes when the father and mother become close friends of their grown-up, successful sons and daughters, and can begin to enjoy their children’s children.

One way we can enjoy our children’s children is by sharing our common legacy through telling family stories in compelling ways. As the Psalmist noted: “Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not: until I have shewed my strength unto this generation; and thy power to every one that is to come” (Psalm 71:18).

Research shows that both younger children and teenagers alike learn how to maneuver through difficult circumstances and life transitions by hearing how family members handled similar challenges. In the preteen years in particular, children who discuss everyday events and family history with parents and grandparents often have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts than their peers. And teens who have learned about their family’s history have more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Family storytelling can help children grow into teenagers who feel connected to the important people in their life.

No one does that better than those of us with graying or receding hair who “know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

To “Living Longer” 

Those of us who have “lived longer'' are mostly looking for many of the same things in life that younger people are looking for: ways to contribute to the Church and the community, meaningful experiences with family and friends, and new opportunities to learn and grow. There is an increasing recognition that “age is just a number” and chronological age may have little to do with interests, capabilities, and even potential. Growing older is inevitable, but passively watching life go by at any age is optional.

► More from this author: Adapting and thriving in the new normal: 4 ways missionaries are sharing the gospel during the pandemic

Lead image: Shutterstock
Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com