Older members find that serving others is a healthy way to overcome the pain of losing their companions.
The joyful, lilting sound of childish laughter and singing bounces around the room. The small children are clustered cross-legged on mats, their eyes alight with interest and their attention focused on the gray-haired woman in the center of the group.
Sister Lagitafuke Viliko Fakahoa, her animated face wreathed in smiles, is as enraptured by the children as they are with her. It is a pleasing picture, a fitting harmony—the seventy-year-old woman and her thirty-some young charges. Sister Fakahoa puts it simply: “I am happy with children.”
This delight in children is what led Sister Fakahoa to establish the Nukututaha Preschool Centre for Niuean children in Mangere, Auckland, New Zealand. A trained schoolteacher, she runs the school without pay because “I love to help my people.” She teaches them songs and chants she has composed herself in addition to teaching the Lord’s prayer, English and Niuean oral alphabets, and a wide range of developmental activities. “I never force the children,” she explains, but rather she delights in seeing them “learn with love.”
Though born in Samoa, Sister Fakahoa moved to the nearby island of Niue at age ten. In 1952, at the age of thirty, she joined the Church; hers was one of the first baptisms performed in Niue. Her husband, Milako Viliko Fakahoa, was also soon baptized. Nineteen years later, after teaching school in Niue for many years, the Fakahoas moved to New Zealand.
In 1986 Brother and Sister Fakahoa happily returned to Niue to fill a mission call. In the first three weeks on the island, with characteristic zeal, the couple baptized five people. Then tragedy struck: Milako was killed in an automobile accident. Courageously, Sister Fakahoa continued with her mission, participating in the conversion of another forty people. “My love for my husband is always there, but I’m not worrying about him,” says Sister Fakahoa today. “I know if I love the Lord and live His gospel I will be with my husband again. But meantime my life is full and happy.”
In fact, it is hard to imagine her life any fuller. Sister Fakahoa is revered among Auckland’s Niuean community as a “mother” to her people. In addition to her involvement with the preschool, she organized a thirty-member women’s weaving group, serves on a community committee for the betterment of the Pacific Island people, is the compassionate service leader in her ward, and is rearing a ten-year-old granddaughter and a thirteen-year-old nephew. In 1982 she was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to the community, both in Niue and New Zealand.
“Some people think it’s time I retired,” Sister Fakahoa explains. “But if you stay home and do nothing, you get old very quickly and are left out of a lot of things.”
Sister Fakahoa’s attitude is one shared by countless members in similar circumstances. Instead of giving in to loneliness and despair, many are taking advantage of opportunities to stretch themselves to new spiritual dimensions.
“Reach Out … and Really Serve Others”
“Our desires are that your golden years will be wonderful and rewarding,” President Ezra Taft Benson told the elderly of the Church in a 1989 general conference address. “We hope your days are filled with things to do and ways in which you can render service to others who are not as fortunate as you.”
Speaking to those who have lost spouses, he said, “Sometimes there is … a feeling of uselessness and aloneness which can be almost overwhelming. … The key to overcoming [these feelings] is to step outside yourself by helping others who are truly needy. We promise those who will render this kind of service that, in some measure, you will be healed of the loss of loved ones or the dread of being alone.” (Ensign, Nov. 1989, pp. 4, 6.)
It is this kind of healing that has begun to soothe Bert Sorenson of Blackfoot, Idaho, since his wife died two years ago. After forty-five years of marriage, the 73-year-old widower had to cope with shock, grief, and loneliness. However, Bert found comfort in the fact that just six months before her death, he and his beloved Ruthie had at last been sealed in the Idaho Falls Temple. To complain or feel sorry for himself is simply not in Bert’s nature. “It’s lonely around here, but if there isn’t anything you can do about it, you just do the best you can,” he explains.
Bert is willing to help others in any way possible. His many years working as a line foreman for Idaho Power have given him valuable skills. He spends many hours with friends fixing water heaters, installing dishwashers, or rewiring rooms. He also spends time with his three children and four grandchildren and, according to a longtime friend, always has a smile and congenial conversation for his wide circle of friends.
Though retired for eleven years, Bert seldom has any free time. “I don’t know how I had time for my work for forty-five years!” he jokes. By thinking of others instead of himself, Bert has brought happiness into many lives, including his own.
“Reach out … and really serve others in your Church callings, in personal deeds of compassionate service, in unknown, unheralded personal acts of kindness,” counsels President Benson. “If you really want to receive joy and happiness, then serve others with all your heart. Lift their burden, and your own burden will be lighter.” (President Ezra Taft Benson, To the Single Adult Sisters of the Church, pamphlet, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1988, pp. 7–8.)
“My Life Really Accelerated When I Retired”
Another retiree who has taken this advice to heart is 68-year-old Lourdes Cabrissas, currently serving in the Chile Santiago North Mission. More than twenty-five years ago Sister Cabrissas, her husband, and their son realized a cherished dream by coming to the United States from Cuba. The family settled in Washington, D.C., where Lourdes taught Spanish to high school students. In time, Lourdes found something she hadn’t expected—the gospel.
Though her husband, a pediatrician, never became a member, he supported Lourdes in her Church activity. In 1986, when Dr. Cabrissas died, Lourdes filled her empty hours by devoting all her time to her son, her grandchildren, and the Church. She became a worker in the Washington Temple and began translating for a group of Hispanic Saints. Soon Lourdes realized she wanted to spend even more time in service-related activities, and began to prayerfully consider working only part-time.
The unmistakable answer she received was that she should retire altogether—though perhaps retire is misleading. “My life really accelerated when I retired,” she explains. “To me it was the beginning of a whole new life. I felt younger and I had more energy than I ever did before.” At last Lourdes had the luxury of spending several hours a day studying the Book of Mormon. “I am completely different now,” Lourdes says. “After sixty-eight years I am a secure woman. I owe everything to the gospel.”
The ways and means to serve are as unique and varied as those who perform the service. When Beverly South’s first child was born deaf more than forty years ago, it set her feet on a path of service that continues to this day. Thirty years ago Beverly’s first husband was killed by a drunk driver, leaving her with five children, including a second deaf child—a baby just six weeks old. Devastated, Beverly managed to go on, running a family business for awhile, then returning to college to complete a teaching degree. Six years later she married a man who also had five children; they were together for almost twenty years until he died of cancer in 1988.
Though it was difficult for her to face widowhood the second time, Beverly, now fifty-nine years old and living in Phoenix, Arizona, is too busy to get lonesome.
Years ago, when Beverly realized her deaf children were missing out on gospel instruction, she set up a special Sunday School class for hearing-impaired children. Eventually, she became an interpreter for a group of deaf members who sat together in sacrament meetings. Later, a sixty-member deaf unit, the Phoenix Forty-Third Ward, was organized. Two of Beverly’s sons, one hearing and the other deaf, have served missions working with deaf people, and the Phoenix Forty-Third Ward recently sent out its first deaf missionary.
Beverly now teaches sign language at Phoenix College and has also volunteered countless hours interpreting for the deaf in various Church, community, and government settings.
Although she admits feelings of loneliness in some “couples” settings such as ward activities and weddings, Beverly spends many hours with her children and grandchildren. Another of her hobbies is reading, especially the scriptures.
Beverly is not alone in finding inspiration and solace in scripture study, particularly the Book of Mormon. “You will find that the daily reading of the Book of Mormon will lift your spirit, draw you nearer to your Savior, and help you to be a student of the gospel who can share great truths with others,” counsels President Benson. (Ensign, Nov. 1989, p. 6.)
“My Testimony Keeps Me Going”
When the Nike shoe company gave an award to Marion Wood, then a 72-year-old grandmother from Portland, Oregon, for her wearing out a pair of athletic shoes on a European summer hiking excursion with a group of junior high school students, friends thought it was characteristic of Marion; her life had always been a flurry of activity.
When her husband died thirty-one years ago, Marion went back to school for a teaching certificate, then taught school for fifteen years. Though she was always active in the Church, Marion—like Lourdes Cabrissas—found retirement a season of increased activity, serving in almost every Church auxiliary, even as ward Relief Society president—for the third time—when she was seventy-two years old. One of the 81-year-old great-grandmother’s newest interests is her computer, which she uses mostly for genealogy. Marion has expanded her one day a week in the stake family history library to many hours on her own computer.
“Eighty-one doesn’t feel any different than eighteen, except your body doesn’t always do what you want it to do,” claims Marion. “Nothing has given me greater joy in my life than the gospel. My testimony keeps me going.”
Even as the seventies and eighties turn into the nineties and beyond, the years can still be valued ones of contribution and inspiration to others. In the Muscatine Ward, Davenport Iowa Stake, Lloyd Dickinson, at ninety-six, may be the oldest Sunday School president in the Church. The “grandfather of the ward,” he is cherished and respected by his fellow ward members for his stalwartness, his refined, gentlemanly manner, and his sense of humor.
In 1982 his wife, who suffered from diabetes, became an invalid, and Lloyd cared for her until her death two years later. Though Lloyd didn’t join the Church until he was sixty-five, he has dedicated the last thirty-one years of his life to gospel study and “can speak for forty-five minutes off of a single notecard, quoting scriptures all the way,” says his bishop, Paul Stamler. In fact, Lloyd often travels throughout his stake on speaking assignments with members of the high council. “Whenever I speak, I always ask my Heavenly Father to put a few words in my mouth worthy of someone else’s time and attention. Sometimes he does, I guess,” Lloyd comments shyly.
About five years ago Lloyd had a stroke and spent time in a nursing home recuperating. One Sunday the bishop and a few deacons visited Lloyd to take him the sacrament. “The boys were sort of clowning around until it was time to go,” recounts Bishop Stamler. “Then Brother Dickinson said, ‘Boys, I want to tell you how much it means to an old man like me to have you come down here and bring me the sacrament. The doctor says I will never walk again, but I want to tell you that he was wrong. I will.’ And Lloyd was right, he did walk again. In fact, he’s quite spry and active.”
“Older Almost Always Means Better”
The influence of one faithful and respected member can have a great affect on the ward. Ninety-eight-year-old Inga Therese Johansen is also that kind of person. In the Salt Lake City apartment building where she lives, the management has not provided space for Church meetings, so Inga has invited the branch to hold its meetings in her small, one-bedroom apartment. “Sister Johansen has a very keen mind and a quick sense of humor,” says Joyce Anderson, Inga’s Relief Society president. “She is a peacemaker and a joy to be around.”
In Norway eighty years ago, Inga’s family was converted to the gospel and immigrated to Utah. Inga married and had twelve children. Now a widow for more than thirty years, Inga continues to study the Book of Mormon, take early morning walks, bake fresh loaves of bread for family and friends, and visit the temple every Wednesday morning.
Life’s later years, as with any season of life, bring a whole array of opportunities and obstacles. The challenges faced by the elderly can be especially difficult and frustrating, seeming at times to be almost overwhelming; yet the later years can also be a time of sweetness and peace. President Benson has said, “Older almost always means better, for your wealth of wisdom and experience can continue to expand and increase as you reach out to others. … We call upon all our senior members who are able to thrust in their sickles in service to others. This can be part of the sanctifying process. The Lord has promised that those who lose their lives serving others will find themselves. The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that we should ‘wear out our lives’ in bringing to pass His purposes. (D&C 123:13.)” (Ibid., pp. 5–6.)