An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for the ‘Age’ Category

We Are of the Nature to Change and to Die

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh lists the Five Remembrances which the Buddha recommends reciting everyday:

1)    I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

2)    I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.

3)    I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4)    All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

5)    My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Facing the reality of mortality is not easy. We all want to be young, healthy, and alive forever. We want to believe people who assure us that, if we are good enough, God will bless us with life, health and vitality for ourselves and our loved ones.

When I was a younger and more devout Mormon, I interpreted the Last Days rhetoric of the Church and D&C 43:32 and 63:51 to conclude that the Second Coming would be in my lifetime. I would be changed from mortality to immortality in the twinkling of an eye. What a comfort to believe I would not have to undergo impaired old age and painful death. I was not alone in this belief.

I no longer cling to this idea. Experience has taught me that God seldom intervenes when even very good people who receive priesthood blessings and ward fasts and prayers become ill and die.

George and I have been married for many years, and we’ve both changed a great deal. Our children have grown and changed their religious views. I could make myself miserable if I believed my eternal reward was based on all of us maintaining the faith of our childhood.

A measure of Buddhist philosophy might help aging Mormons and those with loved ones who no longer accept the family faith to cope with reality.

Hooray for the Pope

I admire Pope Benedict XVI for resigning his office due to his ill health. This decision put the well-being of his church above personal desire for power and influence. I hope his example will inspire other elderly people in responsible positions to recognize that their organization may be better served by a younger, healthier, more energetic person.

According to the Center for Disease Control, almost 75% of people aged 80 and older have a disability. An Australian study showed that 88% of people over 90 have a disability.

Sure, a small percentage of elderly people are free from disabilities. And jobs do exist which people with decreased levels of energy and some physical and cognitive disabilities can perform—but not at leadership levels. I suspect the reason for the flat, possibly negative Mormon Church growth in recent years is connected to the longevity of leaders. 

Life in the 21st century is fast paced. Changes in technology, available information, world governments, and the global economy are almost constant. Even people not slowed by limitations of age have trouble keeping up. Trying to solve current problems with yesterday’s wisdom no longer works.

I think Church leaders recognize that even lesser disabilities than total dementia limit a person’s ability to fully carry out the responsibilities of their office. For many years now, general authorities below the rank of apostle have been given an emeritus position.

Unfortunately, a similar policy has not been instituted for apostles or for the prophet. Currently, seven members of the quorum are over 80. Only three are younger than 70. I don’t know how many of these men have age-related disabilities, but it’s fair to assume that most do.  

My hope is that the Pope’s example will motivate apostles and members of the first presidency to honestly assess their own state of health. When they recognize they can no longer perform adequately, I hope they will put personal feelings aside and resign for the benefit of the Church. And I hope Church culture will allow them to do so.

Final Faith

What do you say to a friend who calls to tell you good-bye because she’s just refused treatment to prolong her life? I knew Anna has not been doing well since she took a fall last year which complicated other health problems and resulted in her being confined to a wheelchair in an assisted living center—in constant pain, unable to use her computer or to enjoy talking with friends for more than a few minutes . Still, I was not prepared to hear her state forthrightly that she is calling it quits.

Her voice trembled with the effort to control her emotions. I asked how her children felt about her decision. “They’re fine with it,” she said. That was good. Urging Anna to undergo further pain and suffering would be neither kind nor loving.

I told her I understood her decision. George and I have discussed end-of-life issues and whether he will undergo further treatment if his cancer returns. Anna said she made her decision carefully and prayerfully and suggested we take our decision to the temple. I’m no longer a devout believer, but that’s not something I brought up with Anna. Obviously, her faith sustains her at this difficult time.

I talked about good experiences we’ve enjoyed together. I said, “I love you. Say hello to Jack (her deceased husband) for me when you see him again.”

I hung up, hoping I’d said the right things. I do hope for a heaven where Jack waits to greet Anna. It’s a comforting thought as the end-of-life approaches.

Aging Past Attachment

“Life is suffering for all life ends,” the Buddha said. “And the cause of suffering is attachment.”

I thought of these words when visiting my 86-year-old neighbor this week. Opal suffers from heart disease and Parkinson’s as well as the assorted pain, feebleness, and general perversity of her aged body. Opal lives alone. Despite dizzy spells and blackouts, she drives when she has strength enough to walk to her garage. “I told the bishop that there’s people in the ward older and in worse shape than me still driving their cars,” she said—reminding me of a kid ratting on her siblings when caught with her hands in the cookie jar.

Opal’s care has worn out our ward. Her next door neighbor checks on her each morning and administers eye drops at bedtime. Opal needs meals brought in, laundry and yard work done, groceries and prescriptions picked up, and transportation to doctor appointments. She should be in assisted living. The bishop has told her this. Her son has taken her to visit several facilities.  I tried to talk her into making the change. She argued, “I’m just so attached to my house and to my neighbors and our ward.”

Opal suffers from loneliness and worries about being a burden to the ward. Her attachment to her house and ward—to the past—cause her inability to make the change that would improve her quality of life.

I’m beginning to wonder if our ward’s compassion is part of the problem. Help from ward members enables Opal to stay in an unsafe, unhappy situation. Of course, it’s great for older people to be independent and to enjoy their home and yards while they can care for them. Still, the time comes for nearly everyone when houses and yards become burdensome. And here is where I see a role for churches.

For generations the Mormon Church has emphasized preparedness for the Second Coming, for natural disasters, and for hard economic times. Now that many people are living into very old age with its accompanying limitations, I think these teachings should be expanded to include preparation for declining years.

Golden oldies need the message that the Second Coming likely will not happen soon enough to remedy the decline and fall of their frail bodies. They need to deal with the fact that even with clean living and priesthood blessings, at some point they may not be well enough to live alone. Checking out alternatives ahead of time is wise. Why not some RS/PH lessons on accepting change, on not being attached to houses—even seeing the positives in no longer having windows to wash and rain gutters to clean?

The pain of losing healthy, functioning bodies and leaving long time homes is inevitable for most of us—but suffering can be diminished if we’re emotionally prepared. Buddhist non-attachment is a good principle to practice when dealing with temporal possessions.

Eating the Bread of the Laborer Part 1

The Doctrine & Covenants instructs us, “He that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.” (42:42)

Many Mormons interpret this passage to mean assistance should not be extended to needy individuals unless they perform some sort of compensating labor. Exceptions are generally made for the elderly, the ill, the physically handicapped, children, and mothers of small children. In general, American Mormons see no need for government welfare programs, believing that welfare promotes idleness.

According to a study published by the University of Texas, 90% of welfare recipients in the US are single moms.  The elderly and disabled are covered under Social Security rather than welfare programs.

Government statistics reveal that 1.7% of Americans receive 50% or more of their income from welfare programs, and 8% receive some type of assistance such as food stamps.  If children and single moms make up most of the 9.7% of Americans receiving partial or full welfare benefits—a group most Mormons would agree needs help in providing for their own— who then are the idle?

According to the census bureau, 13.3% of Americans are over 65—most of us drawing Social Security. Many of us are under the illusion that we’ve earned everything we get back. Not true in most cases. The rate at which a retiree receives back all she has paid varies according to her income. Lower earning workers draw out more quickly than higher paid workers. Government estimates are that workers receive all benefits they have paid within a few years.  Legal immigrants who have worked in the US and paid Social Security taxes are only eligible for seven years of retirement benefits, so it’s fair to say the government believes most retirees have used up their contributions before that time.

What I’m driving at, is that the idle who eat the bread of the workers pretty much has to include those of us who have been on Social Security longer than a few years. I’m not saying we should send our SS checks back, but I do think those of us receiving more retirement benefits than we earned should take a more charitable attitude to fellow welfare recipients—and maybe we should be less strident about demanding our benefits be preserved no matter what other government spending cuts must be made.

Aged to Perfection

My younger brother introduced me to a collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories back in the ‘60s and I became an instant fan. When I taught junior high English classes, of course I found Bradbury’s short stories in most anthologies. “There Will Come Soft Rains” about nature restoring cities where the people have been destroyed, presumably by nuclear warfare, was a special favorite.

I loved teaching ninth graders Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. It made its way onto the district’s approved list before the current fundamentalist trend sent the morality police checking books for blasphemous terms like, “Oh God!” Unlike the tacky YA novels currently approved by parent committees, Fahrenheit  encouraged my students to think.

Ray Bradbury died June 5 at age 91. The PBS NewsHour  showed clips of interviews with Bradbury. I enjoyed the interview from the ‘70s when Bradbury was a robust, middle-aged man. The recent interview, with Bradbury’s face and neck bloated from the effects of an age-impaired body, troubled me. His altered appearance reminded me that my own once firm body is losing the battle with gravity. Why would he let himself be filmed when he looked so bad?

Listening to Bradbury’s interview, I realized that although his body was impaired, his brain was not. He answered each question thoughtfully, giving insight into how and why he wrote. My more mushy brain had been focused on Bradbury’s puffy body rather than on the beauty of his spirit weathered by years of experience and wisdom.

I realized that what Bradbury had left—a brilliant mind and wisdom from a long lifetime of experiences—far outweighed a body surrendering to time’s ravages.

The human body does not age to perfection, but the human spirit can.

The Selfish Generation

Beginning with the post WWII baby boomers, the media has labeled succeeding generations—including Generation X, the Millennials, and now the Connected Generation. From what I’m seeing, the current generation of retirees deserves a name of our own—the Selfish Generation.

The Selfish Generation (SG) is distinguished by elderly people who fervently believe age should not deter them from living as they have always lived. The fact that they no longer need and no longer have the energy or income to keep up their family home does not suggest to these people that they should move to a condo, an apartment, or retirement community or assisted living facility.

SG members are content to let family, friends, and church members shoulder the burdens of snow shoveling, yard care, housework, meal preparation, transportation, and house repairs for them. In older Utah neighborhoods, the ratio of those needing care to those able to provide care is high enough to constitute serious problems. Even the youngest, most generous people have limits to the time and energy they can devote to helping neighbors.

SG members refuse to give up driving just because of physical impairment. A Salt Lake City gentleman in his ‘90s with impaired vision recently totaled his car and incurred a huge fine after rear-ending a car waiting for a stoplight. Unfortunately, the driver did not lose his license.  He can’t afford to replace his car, but can get around SLC on the bus. Still, he wants to rent a car to drive to his vacation home in Southern Utah. Since he’s driven there so many times in the past, he figures he’ll be okay to drive there alone. I only hope he doesn’t find a rental agency willing to risk lending him a car.

Two years ago, I attended several meetings in Utah where legislators wrestled with the problem of funding state retirees from a retirement fund whacked by the stock market drop. Retirees were adamant that their benefits not be touched. Retired teachers were willing to take money from school budgets rather than cut their retirement checks. They finally backed a plan leaving current retirees’ and employees’ benefits intact, but dropping new employees from the guaranteed retirement program—offering them only 401K donations instead.  I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to think I had to live on my 401K after the 2009 crash.

Adult guppies that eat their young are still productive members of their group—considering that the function of adult guppies is to reproduce. Nature apparently condones cannibalizing a few infant guppies so the main group can survive. It’s harder to forgive nonworking, non-productive Selfish Generation members who insist their Social Security and Medicare benefits not be part of any needed budget cuts. SG members generally agree to cuts in benefits for everyone under the age of 55. In essence, they are asking their children and grandchildren to fund their benefits with no hope of collecting equivalent benefits for their own retirement.

Evolution promotes survival of the fittest. The Selfish Generation is calling for survival of the oldest.

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