Growing Older: Everyone’s Challenge


“The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.” (Prov. 16:31.)

Are the gray hairs of retirement a glorious crown or a lonely and difficult burden? For most who reach retirement, life contains worries and frustrations of many types.

In the United States the average life span is 75 for women and 68 for men. This compares to the figures for 1920, when the life span for women was 54, and men 53 years. With this longer life has come new problems.

The worries and problems of aging can be divided into three categories: physical, social, and spiritual.

Physical

Income

One sister described retirement as “twice as much husband and half as much money.” And at the 1971 White House Conference on Aging, lack of financial income was ranked as the most serious problem facing the elderly.

One of the most common financial problems is not just “too much month left at the end of the money,” but “too many years of life beyond retirement.”

An individual should begin to plan for a financially secure retirement when he takes his first job. Each year, the average male worker needs to save, invest, or generate enough income to sustain himself and his family for three to six months after retirement. This can be done, usually with a combination of social security, pensions, annuities, and investments. The average male worker should plan on a minimum of five years’ income for himself and 10 years’ income for his wife beyond age 65. However, he may need to prepare for much longer, since more than 15,000 people in the United States today are over the age of 100.

Today the income of about one-third of the older people is partly based on their own active employment. Social Security payments and benefits, government pensions, private pensions, investments, and insurance provide the greatest source of income.

One solution to the income consideration is demonstrated by Clarence and Audrey Gustaveson of Oregon City, Oregon. When they were in their mid-60s they sold their thriving berry and fruit farm on contract to assure an adequate monthly income, and retained the title to the property to protect against default of payment. On the 10 acres of land they retained, they built a home and continued to raise berries. Brother Gustaveson, now 72, says he works to stay young and healthy—and he is.

Another problem of living on a fixed income is inflation. This may be handled in two ways. The first solution is caution on the part of the consumer. Each purchase should be carefully evaluated in terms of need, price, and quality.

Another solution is to invest in stocks, bonds, and real estate, as income derived from these usually keeps pace with inflation. Of course, values of these investments may decline and thus create problems.

Financial counseling is available through Church and other agencies where persons can receive help in managing their resources and planning their financial future.

Housing

Where shall I live when I retire? The middle-aged couple often has more housing costs and maintenance work than they can handle; at the same time they resist moving from the treasured memories and security of the family home, church, and community.

Lorin and Mae Hinman of Oregon City, Oregon, decided to sell their two-story home when their two sons were preparing to leave home for a mission and for college. The long flight of stairs to the front door and another to the basement would become difficult to climb as the Hinmans got older, and the big yard would be increasingly hard to maintain. So they bought a lot nearby and built a one-story home, freeing themselves from excessive house and yardwork and maintenance costs. The money saved would be invested in securities.

Another way to save on maintenance costs and work is to find a smaller home, condominium, or apartment.

Another solution to the housing question is to move to a retirement community. This arrangement has both advantages and disadvantages. Advertising for these communities is aimed at the active retiree in his 60s; however, within a decade most of the residents are in their 70s. In 10 more years, most are in advanced old age.

In this type of community one can easily associate with his peers, but at the same time be isolated from his family and other friends. Nursing homes provide housing for approximately 5 percent of the elderly in the United States. The balance live in their own homes, or in homes of members of their families.

Transportation

Transportation for the elderly is a major problem, so complex and expensive that few communities have been able to resolve it.

Three ways that an elderly person can avoid being isolated are to keep his health at the highest level possible, to plan for enough funds to own and run a car, and to maintain good driving skills.

However, the time usually comes when driving should cease in the interests of safety and economy. By then, the individual should be able to turn to family, friends, neighbors, and home and visiting teachers for rides, or he may use public transportation.

Walking is a good means of transportation and is the most natural and healthy form of exercise. One study showed that the only characteristic shared by many long-lived men was the walking that each of them did every day.

Health

The person who is active and vigorous in late middle age invariably cites sensible eating habits as a principal good health factor. No matter what a person’s age, he still needs a balanced diet.

The elderly person who lives alone is most vulnerable to malnutrition. Many patients are admitted to hospitals and nursing homes each year because of general illness and weakness. This is “cured” after two weeks of a balanced diet.

Social

Family Ties

One of the most common anxieties of old age is the loss of association with friends and loved ones due to geographical distance, age difference, illness, disability, or death.

One of the best ways to avoid this is to develop and maintain friendships at every age level. By doing this, the elderly person is assured of always having friends instead of fearing that he will outlive his peers.

For example, a retired carpenter decided that he wanted to do something for the people in his town. He developed a center for mentally retarded children and taught them to use woodworking tools. In doing this, he formed many new friendships with his students and their families.

Geographical distances from loved ones can be critical in the general well-being of elderly persons. One Michigan couple decided to move to a Florida retirement community for a short trial period. After six months they returned to their home town. The wife had been so depressed in the new community that she cried almost every day. Needless to say, they were grateful that they hadn’t made the move permanent.

Being an integral part of a family circle and giving and receiving love and help from others is a beautiful and joyous part of life. The common problems of family life develop the character of members, young and old. The retired generation has both the privilege and duty to share time, talents, wisdom, and love with the younger generation.

Adults and family leaders need to do all they can to unite the generations and literally “turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers. …” (Mal. 4:6.) The rewards for success in these efforts are both immediate and eternal.

Activities

Because of the increase in uncommitted time, another problem of the aged is developing skills and keeping busy. The temptation to “slow up” when one retires may develop into an unhappy “rocking chair” existence; thus it is essential that one keep busy. For continued development, senior citizens should select meaningful activities and engage themselves wholeheartedly in them. Especially important are managing the household and family affairs, creative hobbies and cultural activities, voluntary service in Church and community, educational and intellectual development, spiritual and philosophical growth, and social and emotional life with spouse, family, and friends.

Intellectual inactivity is as serious as physical inactivity. The gospel explicitly urges us, in every period of life, to develop our intelligence in every sphere of learning.

The man and woman recently selected as Michigan’s outstanding senior citizens are bright examples of social productivity.

The man, 72, was president of a farmers organization, owner-landlord of a large farm, president of a senior citizens association that took care of a large family for several months after their home was burned, developer of a low-cost transportation service, organizer of an information center concerning employment opportunities for older people in the area, and founder of a community senior citizens center which was eventually also opened to teenagers.

The outstanding woman of the year was in her 80s, had served as secretary-treasurer for the United Fund for more than 20 years, and had, for years, taught a class on international politics in her home to a throng of absorbed citizens.

A special blessing for active elderly members of the Church is the social and emotional security of sharing beliefs, values, and practices with other faithful Latter-day Saints of all ages.

The Church provides the potential for deep social and emotional fulfillment and contribution through activities of the priesthood quorums and Relief Society.

Through their regular visits, home teachers and visiting teachers enrich the lives of the elderly members. The elderly thus know they have direct access to the bishop and Relief Society president through these teachers if they need any assistance.

Concerned teachers can also add to the social lives of their assigned families. Giving a spiritual message, discussing gospel subjects, inquiring about health needs, providing transportation, sharing a family home evening, enjoying a cultural event together, having dinner and a social time, praying together, and giving comfort and blessings through the priesthood—these are but a part of the teachers’ opportunity to love and be loved in return. These teachers, in fact, may be the most important factor in helping the elderly overcome problems of loneliness.

Spiritual

Spiritual Growth

On the average, a person lives 15 years beyond his retirement. But because many people live much longer than that, it is conceivable that one-fourth to one-third of a man’s mortal life may fall after retirement. There is time and usually room, too, for spiritual growth.

Attitudes formulated during retirement and old age may undermine and eventually destroy self-confidence, dignity, and a sense of personal worth. However, the conviction that each is literally a son or daughter of our Heavenly Father reaffirms the great importance of each soul. By realizing that through constant communication with God each person can achieve his potential, the elderly person can continue to progress spiritually.

The importance of religion to the elderly is perhaps most strongly demonstrated by their own assertions: almost 92 percent of the respondents in a recent study agreed that religion was a great comfort to them; more than two-thirds said that religion was the most important part of their lives.

Church Service

One of the most critical problems of the aged is when they feel they are no longer useful to society. The Church counters this and offers many opportunities for leadership, teaching, and other service work.

Since there are no age limits for service in the Lord’s church, the callings that come during the middle and later years are no different than at any other part of one’s life. For young and old alike, a calling in the Church is a major responsibility filled with challenge and rewards; one of the rewards is that the mind is kept active seeking new ideas, higher levels of thought, and deeper meanings in life. Another is that the spirit is nourished through study, prayer, inspiration, revelation, and the influences of the Holy Ghost.

Retired couples have gone on missions and helped convert hundreds of new members. Much of the most effective teaching in Sunday School, priesthood, and Relief Society is accomplished by those who have the knowledge, experience, and wisdom gained through their years of living.

One retired farmer taught a lively and informative Gospel Doctrine class for years; he involved every member by having them discuss and share their experiences. He later served a faithful and enthusiastic group of high priests as an inspired and devoted group leader. Many of the most faithful temple patrons have “retired” to serving the Lord as temple workers in hundreds of sessions each year.

Latter-day prophets, apostles, patriarchs, and other leaders are inspiring examples of productive lives in middle and later years. The presidents of the Church have been an average of 68 years old when they received this calling. (The average life expectancy of men in the United States is only 68.) If we consider the presidents who followed Brigham Young in this office, their average age at ordination was 75, the youngest being 62 and the oldest 93. Each president of the Church has served an average of 12 years.

Aging is not a sudden phenomenon. It is a process involving not only those who are retired or nearing retirement, but also other members of the family. Children should be as aware of the problems of their parents as the parents have been aware of the problems of their children.

The goal of all should be a life in physical, social, and spiritual balance. Retirement should be prepared for physically, spiritually, and socially. When this has been achieved, then the “hoary head” can be the “crown of glory” and dignity the Lord intends.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Preston Heiselt

[photos] Photography by Frank Gale, Longin Lonczyna Jr., Royce L. Bair

Dr. Hansen, an associate professor of family economics and home management at Brigham Young University, serves as Aaronic Priesthood MIA president in Provo 25th Ward, Provo North Stake.