Robert Browning, John Lennon and Pope Francis.
What could a Victorian-era poet, a 20th-century rock star and a 21st-century pope possibly have in common?
Well, I recently discovered something – each of them has tried to assure us that old age is not as bad as it might seem. For all three, “the best is yet to be!”
“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made,” wrote Robert Browning in 1864. Over a century later, John Lennon recorded a song inspired by Browning’s words, “Grow Old with Me.”
Pope Francis recently echoed these words in his general audience talks on aging. “Old age is the phase in life most suited to spreading the joyful news that life is the initiation to a final fulfillment,” he said. “The elderly are a promise, a witness of promise. And the best is yet to come. The best is yet to come: it is like the message of elderly believers, the best is yet to come.”
Pope Francis sees our final years as a time of joyfulness.
“Old age is the fitting time for the moving and joyful witness of expectation. The elderly man and woman are waiting, waiting for an encounter,” he mused.
Though seniors may no longer possess “the power of the energy, words, and impulses of youth,” in their weakness they make “the promise of the true destination of life even more transparent. … A place at the table with God, in the world of God,” the pope said.
Though many of us think about death with fear and trepidation, Pope Francis encourages us to have a more positive outlook, placing our confidence in God, in whose hands we subsist.
Referring to the grilled fish Jesus served his followers after his resurrection, our Holy Father said, “This gesture of caring love gives us a glimpse of what awaits us as we cross to the other shore. Yes, dear brothers and sisters, especially you elderly, the best of life is yet to come … Let us hope for this fullness of life that awaits us all, when the Lord calls us.”
“‘When will my Lord come? When will I be able to go there’?” the pope mused. “A little bit of fear, because I don’t know what this step means, and passing through that door causes a little fear. But there is always the hand of the Lord that carries us forward, and beyond the door there is the party … He is expecting us. Just one step and then the party.”
One step and then the party! Many might find this way of speaking a bit naïve.
Old age as we know it – or presume it to be – is commonly a time of chronic illness and loneliness, and the dying process is often accompanied by pain and suffering.
But it has been my experience as a Little Sister that the elderly often do await the Lord’s coming with eager expectation and a profound sense of peace. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that the elderly are surprisingly resilient, despite their evident weakness.
As Pope Francis was reflecting on the meaning of old age this summer, the American Association of Retired Persons and National Geographic published the results of their 2021 “Second Half of Life Study.”
“We can say with confidence that most prevalent opinions and stereotypes of aging were proven wrong,” an AARP press release states, “On the whole, life is good, especially for older Americans – especially those over 60. And the person you see in the mirror is far different from the type of person younger generations might think you are,” AARP wrote to its members.
The study found that about 80 percent of those in their 80s live with one or more serious or chronic health conditions, and yet, over 75 percent rated their health good, very good or excellent.
“There’s a survival benefit to resilience,” a spokesperson reported. “People can reframe their situation and make the best of it.”
AARP also shared that most of those age 80 and older say they’re living their ‘best possible life’ or close to it, compared with one in five younger adults … Psychologically, people notice and prioritize the positive and let the negative go as they age.”
So perhaps as we begin to feel the burdens of age, rather than trying to recapture our lost youth we should spend more time with those who are older than ourselves.
We might enjoy their company and at the same time learn that the best is yet to come!
Sr. Constance Veit is the communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States and an occupational therapist.