"I notice in my body the beginning of some trouble that must he natural for an old man. I bear it with resignation, even if it is sometimes tiresome and also makes me afraid it will get worse.

It is not pleasant to think too much about this; but once more, I feel prepared for anything.

It gives me joy to keep faithful to my religious practices: Holy Mass, the Divine Office, the whole rosary, with meditation on the mysteries, constant preoccupation with God and with spiritual things."

From retreat notes of Pope John XXIII in the Vatican from Nov 26 -Dec 2, 1961.

In this ongoing series on Dignity of the Elderly we pause to reflect on what we can do to journey with our older brothers and sisters at a special time of life.

When we speak of lifelong development in the elderly, we often think of things older people can do to keep busy - new things they can learn, new hobbies, work that is suited to their strength and experience.

Those who are mobile and independent are labeled "successful": those who are ill and/or dependent on caregivers are often regarded as "burdens" on their family.

What we often fail to see is that for many of our elderly, this is the time of their lives when they are finally able to rest in God. As energy levels decrease and bodies degenerate, they find that their stories, their relationships and their experiences are distilled in long quiet days in God.

This gives them a sense of the ultimate purpose and meaning of their lives. Those who believe in God and have a community of faith supporting them will find that these days are more and more about "resting in God" and "growing in Christ' ("Spiritual Growth and Care in the Fourth Age of Life" by Elzabeth Mackinlay, 2006). For those with no particular beliefs, meaning and purpose will come mainly from their most significant relationships.

As members of the community of believers, a major part of our ministry to the elderly is to help them in this last stage of their spiritual journey. This is an area Small Christian Communities can focus on.

We need to think in terms of journeying spiritually with the elderly in our homes and our neighbourhoods.

How often have we heard ourselves or a caregiver saying to someone who is frail, elderly and feeling ill: put your trust in God, all will be well. Or, don't worry, just eat and you will feel better. Or, I will pray for you, don't worry.

We mean well but we merely scratch the surface with these words. We dare not ask the questions that will give the elderly the opportunity to describe their fears, worries or concerns. We would prefer to clean the room or cook some porridge, rather than sit with the elderly person, listening to whatever he or she wants to say, or even just being present in silent companionship.

Helping others on their spiritual journey means being available to them and letting them voice their concerns. With the elderly, these could include what would happen to their unmarried child after they die, their fear of death, or their fear of running out of money and becoming a burden on their families.

It also means helping them rest in God by encouraging conversation and reflection about spiritual matters. For example, you could ask, "What is God like for you?" or "What do you feel about being old?", "What was the greatest challenge you ever faced?" and "What was a very sad time for you?"

But asking is not enough. You must be prepared to stay and listen to the answers. Perhaps the hurt of broken relationships or the pain of losing a loved one will flow. It is in conversations patiently and lovingly exchanged that spiritual depths can be touched and meaning emerge.

We need to understand the "work" that people are called to do in the later stages of life. The elderly are the custodians of a rich tradition and of faith in our loving God which they hand on to the next generation. They are at a stage when their most important work is to integrate their lives into a meaning they feel peaceful about.

We need to think of the whole of our lives as a spiritual journey that stops only when we die and not when we grow old.
Professor Elizabeth MacKinlay, who was in Singapore for seminars on ageing last March, said that if we only value youth and consider ageing a problem and burden, then our youth have nothing to look forward to or to live for.

Life, and our spiritual journey, will end when youth fades. The young, the elderly and everyone else in between need to recognise that old age brings a new dimension to our spiritual journey and to truly rest in God, we should embrace this time for ourselves and for those who are already elderly.


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