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Our society, focused as it is on youth, efficiency and appearance, is not kind its aging members. People embarking on this later stage of life are faced with deplorable images of old age that make it seem all we have to forward to is illness and depression. Because of this we need to prepare ourselves to meet this inevitable stage of life with serenity. Old age frightens us and we may wonder how to handle our fears of becoming a “weight” on society, of loneliness, abandonment, dependence, and diseases, especially Alzheimer’s or dementia.
But while it is inevitable, old age doesn’t have to be a time of solitude or sadness. It is possible to grow old and be happy, once you have faced your fears. This is exactly what clinical psychologist Marie de Hennezel proposes. She is especially renowned for her work in accompanying persons at the end their lives, and shared the following answers to our questions:
What temptations do people have when facing old age?
Let us take a somewhat dramatic example: the film Mamma Mia!, which shows several 60-year-old women obsessed with behaving like their 20-something daughters. They dress like their daughters.They dance like their daughters and work out like their daughters … Even if the film is loads of fun, deep down it is ridiculous. Sure, you must take care of yourself and look good at 60, but you shouldn’t dress and act like a 25-year-old! Another temptation is to gradually spiral into depression and complain all day long. Under a pretext of sanity, people keep on saying that growing old is horrible and go into depression, from which it is very hard to return.
But isn’t it normal to fear growing old?
In a sense, yes, because aging is not easy in what concerns the body, for example. Women eventually see that they no longer can make heads turn. They have to reconcile themselves with their image. There is a real personality shift that takes place. But it is only temporary. By the age of 70 they have passed this stage and accept themselves for who they are. The inner growth and the joy of company provide them with a new radiance.
Sister Emmanuelle used to say that when she was young she cared about her looks. She later completely forgot about this when she was with the poor. When I did an interview with her on old age, she was nearly 100 years-old. She demonstrated all the outward signs of old age, and at the same time, she had this inner light, this extraordinary vitality. She is the perfect example illustrating this paradox: as we advance in age, our mortal body wastes away, while the inner being grows larger. This is the meaning behind St. Paul’s words, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
How can we overcome this fear of growing old?
First of all, you need to identify your fears. Solitude is a fear that is frequently mentioned. As people grow old, they will encounter loneliness more and more often. If you are “all right” by yourself, if you possess a rich spiritual life, you won’t suffer from it. This problem can be solved fairly early on, by learning to spend time alone instead of always finding yourself in the middle of hustle and bustle.
You say that people can grow old and be happy if they work on themselves. Can you give us some examples?
In the first place, people must accept their mortality. People who are afraid of dying, without realizing that it is inevitable, are very fragile. Living with the conscience of mortality always leads to a more serene life. In this kind of work on yourself, you must realize that we all carry heavy luggage connecting us to our past. It consists of what I refer to as triple “R”: regrets, remorse, and resentments. If we are embarking on old age with too many unresolved issues, we are heading for trouble. Because in fact, this “luggage” becomes heavier and heavier to carry as we grow older and find ourselves more often face to face with ourselves. This accumulation of unresolved issues from the past results in a horrible image of old age, a bitter old person who constantly complains and blames everyone.
As you grow old you need to sort out certain aspects of your life. When you are finished, you will feel much better and obtain a new kind of freedom. Hence, the earlier you do this, the better it is for you! In this process, Christians have a great means at their disposal — the Sacrament of Penance. It compels them to look back on their lives and can be liberating. You can then see what you have to forgive others, and what you have to forgive yourself. This sacrament allows you to enjoy confidence as you place yourself in the presence of the Lord.
How can faith be helpful when working on yourself?
Naturally, if faith has been practiced and cultivated, it makes all the difference. For me, there is a great difference between faith and belief. Faith is trust in God, in the mystery of life and death. If it is genuinely practiced, it can help the person on their path through old age.
So those who believe in God are less “bitter” in their old age?
I have never asked myself this question, but I believe that it is so! There is a “hereafter” for people who believe in God. This hereafter makes them less centered on themselves, less bitter. Fundamentally, this whole adventure of growing old is an attempt to open up to things that lie beyond. The act of praying offers this amazing opportunity for the elderly. Many of them tell me that they don’t feel as lonely, because they have all the people they love in their prayer.
Bible stories that talk of old age show the fecundity of men and women, even of those who have reached a great age: take for example, Abraham, Sarah, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. These biblical characters reveal the radiant image of old age, which we so much need today.
In Christian faith, there is a promise that life will triumph over death. Without speaking of faith in the strictest sense of the word, spirituality allows a person to see his old age as time of growth instead of a tragedy or disaster.
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