To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens: a time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4, KJV)The older we get, the less easily we seem to adapt to change. Yet change is a relentless and constant force in life — whether it's change we choose or change because of death, divorce, a health crisis or financial disaster. "Change is good" goes a popular adage. One can debate its accuracy, but in the Christian worldview all change is ultimately for the good:
"All things work together for the good of those who love Christ." (Romans 8:28)
But change involves endings — the end of seasons we love as well as those difficult seasons we've simply had to endure. In midlife, some of the changes we may have to face include watching a once-vital parent grow feeble and childlike. Or sending our youngest child off to college. It may mean the death of a spouse, or moving from the big house we reared our family in to smaller digs sans flights of stairs — a concession to the changes taking place in our own aging bodies.
Another saying goes, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Indeed, change can feel like death. Familiar routines and surroundings provide at least the illusion of constancy and permanence in an ever-changing world. When a particular season in your life ends and a new one begins, understand that there will be a period of mourning for what "was." Suddenly, even misery looks good, for no other reason than it's familiar. Your mind may play tricks on you; the season past may look like it's not over yet. Memories of what you've left behind take on a rosy, idealized hue. You forget why a particular season ended in the first place. Realize that this is a natural phase in the grief process; it's called "denial."
Maureen Burns, author of the book Run With Your Dreams and Forgiveness — A Gift You Give Yourself offers four suggestions for dealing successfully with change:
Give Yourself Credit. When faced with impending change, remind yourself of previous crises you've handled successfully. You may think you don't have the strength to deal with it, but you do. Tie a knot and hang on.
Supportive People. Surround yourself with positive people who believe in you. Avoid those who bring you down with negative thinking.
Get Adequate Sleep and Exercise.These help balance out the inevitable stress that comes with change.
Pray. Take your fears, hurt and questions to Jesus. Ask Him for the strength to release the past and for a positive attitude to envision a bright future. Find solace and comfort in God's Word. Psalms is a great place to start.
Eventually, it will get easier. The last phase in the grief process is acceptance. When circumstances demand that you leave behind an old season for a new one, it may be hard to imagine you'll ever feel "grounded" again. But you will. As hard as change is, it's also an opportunity to grow — in relationships, in self-confidence and in your faith, allowing God to uphold you when you're own strength isn't enough.
Ultimately, we choose how we'll handle change — with resistance and negativity or with grace and hope. Attitude is key. When big changes come — and they will — arm yourself with the Truth that you can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens you. Including weathering change.
The year I turned 50 I did something remarkable — remarkable for me, that is. I signed up for an all-women beginner's backpack trip in Yosemite National Park. Hiking to the top of the famous Half Dome had been a dream of mine for many years, so when the opportunity arose, I went for it. I spent months getting in shape with weekly workouts, and learned all I could about tents, boots, backpacks and dehydrated food.
When I returned home, I was eight pounds lighter and felt 10 years younger! I committed then to do at least one thing each year that would stretch me in an exciting way. Today I look back over a myriad of activities that have expanded my life in ways I never could have imagined — from teaching myself to sketch to raising African violets and taking a ropes course with my grandson! Other people I've spoken with have found ways to enlarge their lives, too. Perhaps the following steps will encourage you, as they have me, to grow older with grace — rather than with regret.
My friend Marie shared a wonderful example of this precept from her life. When she married her husband he was an avid fisherman. Marie had never held a pole or a worm in her life!
"The first gift I received from my groom was a rod and reel," she said, laughing. "I made up my mind early on to enter his world. I wanted to be with Norm." It didn't matter to Marie what they did as long as they were together. Before long, Marie was fishing with the best of them. One year, she even won a trophy. And she surprised Norm with an amusing gift: 'his and her' fishing jackets! "It was certainly a new fashion statement for me," she quipped.
Get out of your comfort zone. Is there someone in your life who longs to have you enter his or her world in a unique way? Be willing to share a hobby or interest. Consider watching a couple of action movies with your husband between your favorite “chick flicks.” If a friend loves to swim, shake off your fear of being seen in a swimming suit and offer to accompany them; when you agree to sample a friend's interests, it shows them that you care about being in their company — not just that you've “sacrificed” to be with them.
Several months ago I decided on the spur of the moment to take a long walk in the Carlsbad Flower Fields near my home. I grabbed a snack, a bottle of water, a sun hat and my car keys and off I went. I returned home a few hours later, tired but fulfilled. On other days I've taken a few moments away from my desk to sit in silence and listen to soothing music or to bring a lawn chair to the park and doodle on my art pad.
No matter what I choose, I come home refreshed and ready to take up my life again. And my husband has noticed subtle changes in me — for the better! The energy that comes from these activities restores my joy
The longer things go not getting done, the bigger they loom in your conscience. Quit staring at that pile of paving stones in the back yard and start laying the foundation for the Mexican patio you envisioned. Begin the process of cleaning out the garage so you can actually park your cars inside. Put a “for free” sign on the weight bench you never use, and drag it out to the curb. You'll be surprised at how much lighter you feel!
The list of "I-Don't-Wanna's" goes on and on. But when you've taken care of yourself first, these projects no longer seem so overwhelming. You may find you actually look forward to ticking them off your list. Our neighbor Marvin told me the best time for him to do chores is after he plays golf on Saturday. "I come home in a pleasant frame of mind — even when I don't play well."
My husband and I had put off repainting the interior of our home. It seemed too big a job for us and too costly to hire someone else. Then one day, Charles poked his head into my home office and said, "If it's okay with you, I'm going to take off the wallpaper today. There's no going back once I do, so what do you say?" I gulped, then agreed.
"This is great," he called out a day later, as he mounted the ladder and ran the roller across the ceiling in the first room. "I'm already thinking about how beautiful it's going to look." And it was. As we marveled at the transformation of the newly-refurbished room, we must have shared the same thought: Why did we wait so long?
Painting might not be your thing, but think about the big projects you've procrastinated doing for months or years. Then heed the command of a certain athletic shoe company, “JUST DO IT!”
To quote Theodore Roosevelt, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
The more focused you become on enriching the lives of others, the more sense of purpose you'll have. The more you begin to explore new interests, the more engaged with life you'll become. The more you begin to tackle long-postponed projects, the more empowered you'll feel. All these things put in to practice will result in a heightened enthusiasm for life. The more energized and optimistic you feel, the more you'll be moved to express your gratitude to God. Thank Him for this wonderful life you've been given. A spirit of gratitude, more than anything else, will help determine whether you grow old gracefully — or just grow old.
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. (Proverbs 31: 30-31, NIV)
I can't help thinking it's no accident that these two verses come at the very end of Proverbs, punctuating a potent description of a "wife of noble character." It's as if the writer wanted to be sure we understand exactly what it is that gives a woman value, what makes her attractive in the eyes of God. Sadly, here on earth, in a society that too often worships physical beauty and shuns the physically flawed, noble character gets rather short shrift. When supermodel Nikki Taylor was severely injured in a recent car crash, what was the first thing reporters wanted to know? — whether her beautiful face had been damaged. No, the hospital spokesperson, replied, her injuries were internal. As if that was somehow good news.
Remember the day Princess Diana died? You may recall that Mother Teresa died the same day. A few commentators noted the irony that Diana's death swept Mother Teresa's passing off the front pages. One can't help but wonder: would Princess Diana's death have been considered quite as newsworthy if she hadn't been quite so pretty? It's tragic whenever someone dies at an early age, but it's viewed as a deeper loss when the person who died was young and beautiful.
Should it come as any surprise that as we women cross the threshold of middle age, we treat this phase of our lives as something to dread? Admit it, girls: rather than celebrating the wisdom that comes with getting older, secretly, we'd happily trade some of that wisdom for a few less crow's feet. We'd barely hesitate before swapping hard-won experience for thinner, firmer thighs.
The negative cultural messages are there, but championing our aging selves requires that we also learn to counter our own negative self-talk. Yes, the worldly evidence of society's prejudice against age points at us with a long, bony finger and says, "You're not young, therefore you are not desirable or interesting anymore." But we don't have to buy into that.
If we are to more than simply survive getting older — if we are to truly celebrate God's gift of life in all its changing phases — we must be willing to be our own cheerleaders. That means seeking out role models who affirm us and ignoring messages that serve no other purpose than to make us feel bad about ourselves.
At this point in our lives, it's time to jettison the negative tapes that have played over and over in our heads since adolescence: the continuous chant of "I'm too fat, my hips are too big, my chest is too small, my hair is too thin, etc." Replace those tapes with reminders of what's good about you and what you've done to make a positive impact on the lives of those around you. Reinforce a positive self-image with God's words about what constitutes true, lasting beauty.
Finally, consider these parting thoughts from Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), a pioneer of women's suffrage and a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony:
"When it is only through age that one gathers wisdom and experience, why this endless struggle to seem young? . . . Remember that beauty works from within, it cannot be put on and off like a garment, and it depends far more on the culture of the intellect, the tastes, sentiment, and affections of the soul than the color of the hair, eyes, or complexion . . . Be kind, noble, generous, well-mannered, be true to yourselves and your friends, and the soft lines of those tender graces and noble virtues will reveal themselves in the face . . . There are indelible marks in every face showing the real life within."
Society's prejudice against age points at us with a long, bony finger and says, "you're not young, therefore you are not desirable or interesting anymore." But we don't have to buy into that.
Harold is 86, a retired lineman for the phone company. His wife of 60 years died last year, leaving him alone in the home they shared for many decades. He used to be a hunter and outdoorsmen — an activity that helped him cope when Helen died. But after injuring himself in a fall, he's been relegated to using a walker around the house.
He passes the days watching television game shows and staring out the window onto land he can no longer walk. It's sunset (about the time he and Helen used to sit down to their evening meal). He's decided he can't endure another day alone in this house. Taking his hunting rifle down off the wall, he opens the box of shells in his lap and loads the chamber …
Old age is one of life's thresholds that few of us in midlife are emotionally and psychologically prepared for. We'd like to believe we'll never have to experience the full impact of time's whittling away of our bodies. We may stave off the symptoms of old age with exercise and diet, or simply deny the facts by applying hair color and skin serums.
But in fact, barring catastrophic illness, car accidents or devastating Acts of God, most of us — more than 90 percent, according to one statistic — will die incrementally of chronic diseases like diabetes or hardening of the arteries. A comparative few can expect to go as we'd like: at home in our sleep, or from a sudden heart attack while doing a task we love.
Likewise, as we get older we'll experience with mounting frequency the passing of friends and loved ones. Old age and loss go hand in hand.
We avoid thinking about getting older because old age conjures up our worst fears: of being trapped in a bed or wheelchair, of being a burden, of losing our ability to think and reason — of being alone.
Thus we shouldn't be surprised to learn that depression is epidemic among the aged. According to one study, 20-25 percent of the elderly in nursing homes are clinically depressed.
Every day in the United States, 17 adults over the age of 65 commit suicide — the highest suicide rate of any demographic group. And unlike younger people — those for whom an attempted suicide is more often a "cry for help" — elderly people who attempt suicide usually succeed.
"The elderly are usually more intentional about what they're doing," says Dr. Elisa Thompson, a specialist in human development and aging issues. "They are more likely to use firearms or other lethal means. They also tend not to leave notes."
According to Dr. Thompson, those who do leave notes often state such reasons as despair, the desire to escape suffering, economic and financial problems and a fear of burdening family members.
Yet treating depression in the elderly can be difficult thanks to cultural stereotypes and attitudes among an older generation that often views depression as a character weakness — not the disease it actually is. An elderly person's stoicism ("I just need to toughen up, that's all") may mask symptoms and prevent them from asking for help.
Even when they do ask, help may be hard to find. Suicide hotlines are often manned by young people untrained in how to counsel depressed older adults. Finally, and perhaps saddest of all, is the reality of physical isolation. In a world so fearful old age, there may be no one physically close enough who recognizes the symptoms and can help the depressed elderly person get the help they need.
The good news is that depression is treatable. Depending on the severity and exact nature of an elderly person's depression, there are a number of things friends, caregivers and family members can do to ease a loved one's feelings of despair and emotional "heaviness."
Medication should be given every consideration as a treatment option. Today's new generation of antidepressants can perform wonders for those who are chronically, clinically depressed. Many of the new drugs correct chemical imbalances with a minimum of side effects.
Many elderly people, used to contributing to the world, wrestle with feelings of having no purpose. Employment (paid or unpaid) makes an older person feel that their life has meaning again. It doesn't matter what the job is: stuffing envelopes or helping to serve meals at the local senior center. Serving others makes all of us feel better.
As we age, we suffer losses — of spouses, loved ones, our freedoms, etc. It's natural to grieve these losses. It's not natural to be unable to express our feelings of loss out loud. A friend or caring volunteer can play the role of compassionate listener to someone going through a painful loss. Just by listening — not necessarily offering "solutions" — we honor the hurting person's feelings and help ease them through the normal stages of grief.
When someone is clearly clinically depressed and not thinking rationally, a caregiver can gently counter negative attitudes with a different, more hopeful perspective. This is where God's Word can come into the picture as a reminder that "suffering is for a day, but joy comes in the morning."
The hope of Christ is for all people in every age and stage of life. The Bible is rife with words of hope and comfort for suffering people. Be prepared to share those words with a depressed elderly person.
According to Dr. Thompson, there are a number of things communities can do to raise awareness of this issue and ease an elderly person's emotional pain:
Staff suicide hotlines with older adults or young workers with geriatric training.
Advertise services for the elderly (transportation, community meals, in-home services, etc.) in churches, pharmacies, retirement centers and community dining halls.
Hospitals and communities with programs for the elderly can train "advocates" to set up appointments, make helpful phone calls and ensure that homes of at-risk elderly adults are free of weapons, expired medications and dangerous household products.
Clinical depression, unlike the occasional case of "the blues," is a real, treatable illness, with symptoms as predictable as the symptoms of any other disease. Yes, Christians can become depressed. They also can — and do — commit suicide.
Trouble is, only about one in six elderly sufferers of depression get help. If you know an elderly person who you suspect is clinically depressed, don't brush it off. Talk to the person and contact a physician — or sit with them while they make the phone call. Do whatever is necessary to get them the help they need.
British researchers recently confirmed what many of us already knew or suspected: A vibrant spiritual life offers older people mental and emotional health benefits.
The study — of 28 recently bereaved seniors from various Christian backgrounds — found a clear link between spiritual belief and personal well being. Of the 28 participants, nine stated they had low or weak spiritual beliefs, 11 indicated moderate levels of belief and eight had strong beliefs.
Researchers interviewed participants on the first anniversary of their spouses' deaths, again, six months later, and also after the second anniversary of their loss. Those with strong beliefs indicated they were adjusting well, while those without some foundation of faith showed signs of depression.
Earlier studies have overwhelmingly shown a strong correlation between an active spiritual life and good physical health. More than 40 studies comprising some 125,000 participants have indicated that those with strong religious beliefs live longer. One six-year study of elderly North Carolina residents, predominantly Protestant, reported that those who prayed or read religious material daily had a much better chance of staying healthy.
Some researchers surmise that prayer and Bible study act as stress relievers, protecting the immune system and offering an emotional cushion in difficult times. The notable exception was people with religious beliefs that put a heavy emphasis on God's judgment over His love and mercy. The research indicated that guilt and fear of eternal punishment may actually damage health and increase stress.
For those of us who profess Christ as Lord and Savior, the take-away from these studies isn't simply a confirmation of the benefits of our belief in God. As we spend time with friends and family who are undergoing difficult times, we can offer them not only an eternal perspective to help them past temporal troubles, but a reminder that our health and emotional comfort can be found in our loving, heavenly Father.
Researchers surmise that prayer and Bible study act as stress relievers, protecting the immune system and offering an emotional cushion in difficult times.
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