Gold Coast by night. Image: Google
BY GARRY J. EVERETT
Queensland’s Gold Coast, that magnificent stretch of sun-bathed, surf and sand, is often referred to as ‘God’s waiting room’.
This is a sad description, based on the fact that so many retirees are regarded as moving there simply to live out their final years.
The word waiting implies that the elderly people exist in some kind of passive mode, with nothing to contribute to one another or society, and with not much to gain either.
Perhaps our Church is also regarded as God’s waiting room, because we create similar expectations for our elderly parishioners.
Yet the Christian tradition of waiting is a much more hope-filled dynamic reality as recounted in the Old and New Testaments.
I wonder how our elderly faithful regard their being cared for by “the Church”. What sense of” waiting” are they experiencing?
Psychologists tell us that the last great frontier for human exploration is our inner self.
Ericsson, in his work on identity formation, lists eight developmental challenges, the successful achievement of which secures a mature, healthy personal identity.
The last two of these challenges are described as the struggle to (a) overcome stagnation and achieve generativity; and (b) to overcome despair and achieve integrity.
These are often represented as the challenges for those in the later years. Both generativity and integrity have about them that same dynamic quality that we find in the best Christian writings on spirituality: from the Desert Mothers and Fathers, through the Mystics, to Merton, Chittister and Rohr of today.
But this gives rise to the question: ‘How many elderly lay people have been introduced to this tradition, and been supported in their exploration of it’?
Is it too late to expect that the Church might actually pursue in a serious way, programs that could assist our elderly parishioners to be generative in a Christian sense?
Recently I was involved in a parish’s development of a Pastoral Plan. As part of the data we had collected, were two pieces from a range of demographic statistics provided by the local Council.
The first indicated that the fastest- growing age group in the local area ( and proportionately therefore in the Parish), was the age group 80-95 year olds.
The second piece of data was on the fastest- growing ‘type of dwelling’, and this was ‘lone dwellers’.
Put together, these two pieces of data came as a shock to the parish! With a rising population of older people living alone, how might the parish respond?
The immediate answer focussed on the social aspects: visiting; taking the elderly to lunch; providing transport. It took quite a number of meetings before the issue of the ‘care for their spiritual life’ became a matter for pastoral response as well.
We immediately felt out of our depth. What did we know about the needs of elderly people and their spiritual development? What or who might help us? How should we proceed? Answers were few and far between.
The University of the Third Age came into being about 40 years ago in recognition of the fact that older people still have a burning desire to learn new things, and so programs were developed specifically to meet these needs.
Since then, the University of The Third Age has morphed into a virtual university of self-help, in which teachers and learners find each other through a learning exchange, and where funding of offerings is negotiated in many flexible ways.
It seems to me that here is an avenue that the Church should explore as one way of offering its rich resources of spiritual development. It would be wonderful if, in this country, our extensive network of spiritual directors could work together to offer a range of programs in the spiritual life, which addressed, specifically, the emerging needs of our older population.
As we grow older we need a spirituality that addresses the issue of physical diminishment as counter-balanced by a flourishing of the spirit within. We don’t need a stereo-typical approach that confines the elderly to a paradigm of total diminishment!
My general impression is that the Church has not yet accepted the challenge of changing its approach to the God’s waiting room model of spiritual development in older people.
If the reports from The Australian Productivity Commission are accurate, then this country is facing a huge increase in the proportion of elderly citizens. Some plans are already in place for some provisions to meet this new demographic.
However, I do not see any plans among those projected provisions which will address the inner life, the spiritual life of our senior citizens. This is a niche that the Church should fill.
Fr. Richard Rohr (Falling Upwards, 2012) has recently asked the question: ‘How much false self (in the first half of life) are you prepared to shed, in order to find your true self ( in the second half of life)’?
The answer to that question will require us all, as Church, to shift our focus away from an enervating approach to waiting, towards a more empowering one.
Three stimuli to beginning that shift might be: If not, why not? If not you, then who? And, If not now, then when?
Welcome to another needed change in the Church!
Garry Everett is deputy chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland and a former Deputy Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission and previous chair of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
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