How to Understand and Embrace the Vulnerability of Aging
- Stacey Monaco Contributing Writer
- 2023 16 Jan
Author and researcher Brene Brown writes, “We associate vulnerability with emotions that we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty, yet we often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”
My husband and I are both getting older. He is a good-sized man with broad shoulders and a barrel chest, and I am a petite woman sporting red hair who likes to tease that my emerging greys make me a bit of salt and cayenne pepper. We each lost a parent to cancer when they were much too young. Our surviving parents both lived well into their late eighties. I share these bits of biographic information as a backdrop to a conversation that my husband and I shared recently, wherein we both confessed that some of the outcomes of the aging process are leaving us with a new and unfamiliar sense of vulnerability.
While the turning of the years can offer new freedoms, physical and cognitive changes may also usher in the potential for shame, despair, and fear, begging the underlying question of just how vulnerable do we feel when we go out into the world and how do we face aging as followers of Christ.
Understanding the Aging Process
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
If you are reading this, you are likely approaching what some might refer to as the golden years. You are either experiencing some changes physically and cognitively, or you want to learn how to approach the aging process. While gaining a bit of understanding can quell irrational concerns, facing the changes that age may bring can still cause stress, and at times depression. As Christians, we know that there is wisdom in inclining ourselves toward knowledge while balancing our understanding with the tenets of our faith and counting our time on earth appropriately.
With that in mind, here is a brief notation of physical and cognitive changes that most adults will experience as they age, and that can lead to a sense of vulnerability as we approach the day-to-day of life. Physical changes may include decreased strength, a reduction in bone mass, and lessening flexibility and mobility, leading to poor physical activity tolerance. Diminished vision and/or hearing can lead to decreased sensory awareness and a slower response or reaction time. Physical and cognitive changes can cause concerns of loss of self-reliance and independence, spurring concerns of an inability to provide for oneself physically, financially, and relationally.
To balance out the above facts, it is also important to understand and remember that older adults in their 60’s to ’90s are not a homogenous group experientially or in their quality of health. Health and aging specialists concur that the aging process is not necessarily genetically determined. Forgetfulness is common to all age groups and is not an overall indicator of dementia. Older adults have more control over the aging process than we often believe we have.
Stewardship and the Aging Paradigm
“Each day is a life in miniature.” H.H. Potthoff
As people of faith, the understanding that we are not in charge of everything but are simply stewards of all that we are and have should not be a new concept. Conversely, it should stand as a truth that is the foundation of our ongoing transformative experience in Jesus Christ and our reliance on the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the hard-earned wisdom of our years has provided the knowledge that we are in charge of some things, and moreover, God calls us to a life of stewardship over every area of our lives, including the aging process. If each day is a life in miniature, then it stands to reason that how we spend our minutes will be how we use the miles in our lifetime, and aging well begins with the stewardship of valuing each day. Thriving in the aging process is also a function of perception, which impacts our orientation toward aging as a gift or as a downward spiral.
Aging specialist Manfred Diehl notes, “Our biggest challenge now is to convince the person on the street that they have more control over their own behavior and aging than they know.”
Feelings of vulnerability and being exposed as frail or weak can be common to all stages of life but may feel punctuated in aging, causing us to conclude, “I am aging; therefore, I am vulnerable.” This mindset does not need to be viewed as a weakness but rather as awareness of our humanity that can lead us to know who we are and to rest in God’s design for us as individuals and as the older generation.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Dmitry Berkut
Embracing the Gift of Vulnerability
God has placed us into life intentionally wired to rely on him and interact within a community. Aging and its incumbent changes can cause even the stout of faith and heart to fall victim to fear. Understanding that aging may lead to feelings of vulnerability offers an opportunity to the older Christian to engage their faith with fresh fervor.
Senior director Heather Battley notes, “When we view aging as a worthwhile phase of our own lives, we can begin to think about the benefits that come with getting older.” Scripture teaches us to choose with intention where we set our minds (Philippians 4:8), and in so doing, we begin to reframe through the mind of Christ the narrative of aging.
A mature faith knows that the hope of our salvation does not lie in consistently happy outcomes, nor in the ease of our days, but rather it teaches us to number our days with the confidence that “even to your old age and gray hairs,” the God who made you will sustain and rescue you. Isaiah 46:4
If vulnerability is to act as a birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love, we must choose to embrace who we are and what we can do as aging adults, understanding that we are sharing a common stage of life with those of our generation, and our predecessors who have navigated aging before us. We have an accumulation of experiences and an understanding that adversity is witnessed in all stages of life and can function as part of spiritual growth. Choosing to see advanced years as a golden opportunity to continue to bear the image of Christ, to love others more fully, to act as a co-creator with our God by using the skills, gifts, and wisdom planted in us, and to steward each sacred day as a gift can lead us into aspects of all of the aforementioned benefits of vulnerability and being of the elder generation.
Successfully Navigating Growing Older
Aging research indicates that a healthy lifestyle can slow and even reverse the cognitive and physical decline. Embracing your abilities, from exercise and movement to artistry and business acumen, can enhance emotional wellbeing and reduce the fear factor in vulnerability by improving confidence in yourself as an aging person.
Exercising, exhibiting gratitude for the privilege of growing older, intentionally seeking out learning a new activity, or tackling new subject matter, as well as contributing societally through work, caregiving, or volunteerism all contribute to aging well and can also have the benefit of improved physical and mental health.
Researcher and scientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, alongside other brain specialists, suggest that the brain can continue developing and changing throughout our lifetime, including as we age. The science of neuroplasticity shows that the brain has the exceptional capability to rewire itself as we consistently introduce it to new challenges such as learning a new language, dancing, walking a new path in your neighborhood or community, creating art, or even learning a Bible verse.
Aging and the Christian Way
New Testament Scripture refers to the Christian life as the “Way,” a path that begins when we invite Jesus into our lives. The call to godly, missional living does not suddenly change when we step into our 60’s or when we round the corner and stare down a century of life—the experience of living beckons with the understanding that each day has divine significance. As Wesley writes, “A loving quality of life reveals more of Christianity than any creed.” As aging Christians, we are people of hope who carry within us a reverence for a life exhibiting God as present in all of our experiences, revealing him through our honest and vulnerable approach to all of life. This is the holy found in the commonplace.
As thinking and choosing adults, there is little value in ignoring or eschewing the aging process. All of life has presented challenges and constraints, and our years have equipped us with tools to face the days and make the most of our time. Well-being can be found in the knowledge that our days on earth are still a quest for his kingdom.
The church has the opportunity to empower the older generation with age-friendly environments and considerations and through relational communication and an understanding of the perspectives and needs of the entirety of their community. Making strong choices to fight against the loneliness and isolation that might lead to depression or diminished Christian faith experience and combatting a negative view of aging and older persons both within the church and in the larger community.
Understanding and embracing the vulnerability that is often inherent with aging can begin with the simple recognition that life is changing, that our need for reliance on God is all the more present and tender. We can choose to agree with Job, “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” Job 12:12
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Wavebreakmedia
Stacey Monaco has been speaking and writing since her first unpublished children’s book in the fifth grade. Her journey as a writer has taken her from the depths of blue water exploration, to the simplicity of crafting words to encourage and educate in the areas of loss, legacy, leadership, and living life passionately with purpose. Stacey received her Masters Degree in Christian Ministry and Leadership from Talbot School of Theology, and has worked in many roles from slinging coffee to pastoring women. To find more on living the Christian life with intention, head over to her website at StaceyMonaco.com.