My own theology has evolved over these past few years to the point that I am convinced that the most important aspect of our life, especially as we age, is the nurturing of our own personal relationships.
This "theology of relationships" formed the basis of my book Seekers of Meaning: Baby Boomers, Judaism and the Pursuit of Healthy Aging. This need for being with people, for maintaining community and social connection has been validated by study after study in recent years. It has a lot to do with our fear of being alone, which is often a mask for the fear we all share of the ultimate aloneness of death.
This need for community was brought home again to me recently. As scholar-in-residence for a weekend, for a Milwaukee congregation, I was asked to spend a morning at the Milwaukee Jewish Home. and share in a dialogue with several dozen residents.
The meeting took place on a Friday morning and the group ranged in age from 70's to the 90's. We set out to unpack a text and that effort led to a wonderful discussion about the residents’ personal journeys. The stories were varied and wonderful.
The feeling of gratitude that these people had about living in this facility emerged as a theme of our conversation. They had all come to the Home from various locations and from a wide variety of situations, often involving loss. What helped keep them active and going, they said, was being among people in a living, vibrant community, surrounded by people who cared for them.
The several who were most verbal in the discussion articulated a sense of empowerment and security that living in this community provided. None wished to be lonely; each knew that isolation was a road that would lead to depression and illness. Collectively, they believed that being with people was a key factor in their own "healthy" outlook on life.
One of the realities of our life is that, as we boomers age, our own need for that human connection grows stronger. Our friends and family become more central as we come to recognize that these relationships are the real currency in life that mean something: The importance of material things fades, yet relationships help shape and frame our life, no matter what our age. Indeed, they become more precious as we grow older.
Older adults, asked what their biggest fears as life ends, often say they are often not wishing to suffer and not wishing to end their lives "alone.”
We see this as we boomers deal with our own parents. A major reason for the so-called "reverse migration" (moving parents back from retirement locations to be closer to family) is the desire of all to be "closer,” not only for care-giving, but also because we become more aware that our time with parents may be getting shorter.
Relationships and social connection are a strong force and need as we work our way on our own personal journey. Roger Angell, in a recent article, “This Old Man,” published in The New Yorker, cogently sums up that need:
"Getting old is the second biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the care when coming home at night...But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again."
Tags: boomers life changes relationships rabbi_richard_address family aging
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