October 22, 2019

Joan Chittister OSB: 'Aging is about the way we decide to age'

Erie Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister lamented before an audience in Buffalo of about 160 Sisters of Mercy, and other professionals who work in the field of aging, that society “numbers” everything.

“To be over 65 in this time is to feel badly about ourselves even when we feel good,” said Joan, an internationally-known spiritual writer and lecturer based at Mount St. Benedict in Erie, Pa.

“Old age is when you know all the answers, but nobody bothers to ask you the questions. Aging has little or nothing to do with arithmetic age. Aging is about the way we decide to age.”…

Joan’s talk, “The Gift of Years,” came on the final day of the Oct. 3-5 18th National Conference on Aging, sponsored by the Mercy Network on Aging at the Millennium Hotel. Titled “Oneness in Transitions and Aging Gracefully,” it featured speakers, workshops, prayer and networking opportunities.

Sister Judith Frikker, a member of the Institute Leadership Team, delivered the keynote address, “Grace of Change,” on Oct. 3 in which she shared various definitions of aging and what it means to age gracefully.

“Aging represents the accumulation of changes in a human being over time and at multiple levels,” she said.

She described four types of age:

  • Chronological age is the number of years since birth.
  • Biological age refers to the present position of an individual relative to his or her potential lifespan. It can also refer to one’s age in terms of biological health as seen in vital organ functional capacity.
  • Psychological age is an individual’s adaptive capacity compared to that of other individuals of the same chronological age.
  • Social age refers to the habits and roles of an individual relative to his or her group or society. There are often elaborate age-status systems that lead to expectations of how an individual should behave in relation to others. This determines society’s age expectations; are you living the life of somebody your age?

“Although many elders report that their lives are more satisfying than ever, and their self-esteem is stronger than when they were young, they are still subject to cultural attitudes that make them feel invisible and devalued,” she said.

Judith also shared with the audience video clips of elder Sisters of Mercy speaking on grace or wisdom in their lives as they have lived through times of change. Among them were Sisters Rita Brocke, Julia Norton and Donna Marie Paolini from New York Pennsylvania West.

She concluded her talk reflecting on the Journey of Oneness, a transition that “touches the lives of all Sisters of Mercy.”

Judith identified mission, governance and administration as key aspects of the journey as it moves forward.

“The transition that we are in as Sisters of Mercy calls us to be transformed, rather than only changed,” she said.

Joan in her presentation noted that mental health and physical vigor have become as much the hallmark of our elders as they are in their youth.

“The question is not ‘Can we learn at our age?’ but rather, ‘What do we want to learn next?’ Age is not a thing to be pitied. Age is not a thing to apologize for. Age is not a thing to be feared.”

Quoting poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

She said that death and age are not synonyms.

“Age comes only to the truly blessed.”

Other presentations at the conference included:

  • “It is About People: Transitions and Dementia” and “Transitions and Dementia: Further Exploration,” Dr. Kathleen Powers, Ed.D., RN;
  • “Does Asking for Help Make Me Look Helpless?” and “Engaging Aging,” Dr. Susan Wehry, M.D.;
  • “The Journey Through Transitions,” Kris Sullivan, RN, BSA, MHA; and
  • “Seeing Through a Glass Dimly: Opening the More Difficult to Grace in Ministry to Elders,” Avis Clendenen, Ph.D., MDiv.

“The conference presenters provided a depth of caring and spirituality which is foundational to those who work and minister in the field of aging. In addition, it offered attendees an enriching experience of practical holistic information,” said Sister Kathleen Ann Kolb, chair of the event.

Bob Keenan provided information for this story

Messages to: Gary Loncki- Communications Director Sisters of Mercy of the Americas New York Pennsylvania West

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