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If Growing Old Is a Journey, Where's the Nearest U-Turn?

God meant for it to be an experience we enjoy, not fear.

ByABC News via logo
August 27, 2010, 9:33 AM

Aug. 27, 2010 — -- Not long ago I flipped through the pages of an in-flight publication while waiting for my plane to load. I couldn't help but notice the variety of anti-aging advertisements. There were devices to tighten sagging facial muscles, vitamins that promised youthful energy and wrist bands that guaranteed to make you pain-free from arthritis.

By the time the plane left the runway, my mind had wandered to something that had happened a few years back when I was visiting my mother at her senior residence center. I had introduced myself to an older woman and her middle-aged son. She was clinging to his arm as they toured the senior facility, trying to determine if it was the right place for the mother to live. We chatted a few minutes before I took a seat at my mother's table in the community dining room.

A few minutes later, the older woman caught my eye and motioned for me to come to her table. I glanced at her son. He had a blank look on his face as if to beg forgiveness for what his aging mother was about to say.

The older woman leaned in close to me before bluntly asking, "Just how old are these people?" There was an audible emphasis on the word "old."

I admit, I was taken aback. I was afraid she had been turned off by the sea of walkers, canes and power chairs that had swarmed the dining room as the lunch hour approached. I looked around the room filled with aging adults, then gave her an honest assessment.

I knew the man sitting at the first table was 62. He was still dealing with the effects of a disability. The white-haired woman seated near the windows was getting ready to celebrate her 100th birthday. Most of the residents in the room were in their late 70s and 80s.

I was surprised when the woman sank back in her chair and gave a big sigh of relief. "Oh good," she said. "I was afraid they were going to be too young, like the people in the pictures on the brochure."

Her candor hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew exactly what she meant. Most of the marketing materials for elder-care businesses and products show active older adults doing things like playing golf or ballroom dancing. It's the image of aging we like most.

Who doesn't want to have the energy and ability to be actively engaged in life? We want to believe that as we age, we will always be one of those golf-playing, ballroom-dancing seniors. However, that is not the reality of many older adults.

The older woman in the dining room admitted that she was afraid she would be unable to match the image of the people on the brochure. Through no fault of her own, she was in a state of physical decline. For her, there was a disconnect. The brochure painted one picture of aging; her reality painted another.

People often say that aging is mind over matter. There is great truth to that. Having a positive attitude and keeping your brain active and alert is vital to healthy aging. However, the problem comes when you refuse to admit that in spite of a cheery outlook, daily exercise and healthy diets, bodies still wear out.

Think about it for a moment. God could have designed the human body to stop maturing after age 21 even though a person continued to age in years. But that wasn't his plan.

The goal of a long life is not to just add more candles to the birthday cake. It is to continue to add purpose and meaning, in spite of circumstances. Aging is not a curse. It is not a punishment. It is a natural process that might be delayed or altered somewhat through medical advancements, but it can never be denied. For those who see with eyes of faith, aging is ultimately a spiritual journey.

The thing is, there is no U-turn that allows you to escape the aging process. Certainly you can make changes in the direction of your life, but as long as you are alive, you can't avoid growing older. Try as hard as you might, you cannot keep your body from declining over time.

As people of faith, we must be careful not to make older adults feel like failures because they can't do things they used to do. We must make it clear that nothing is wrong with those who have grown frail. We need to remember that one day, it will likely be us pushing the walkers.

To age well is to have a realistic but hope-filled perspective of the road that lies ahead. Now's the time to get ready for the sacred adventure. There's no turning back!

Missy Buchanan is an author and columnist who has written books such as "Living With Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults" and "Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms." You can follow her here.