Aging Without Apology. – book reviews

Kenneth Wray Conners

Despite the youth-oriented nature of our culture, the graying of America has focused the spotlight on seniors. Advertisers woo them. Politicians accord them great respect. Corporate downsizers target them for early retirement. Health care providers find them a special source of revenue. And wherever the elderly are prospering, scam artists lie in wait.

The authors of these two books view aging from very different perspectives. Jean Amery analyzes aging from an existential viewpoint which recalls the writer of Ecclesiastes. In a lugubrious voice, he read the book’s five essays over the radio in 1968; now John D. Barlow has translated them from the German. The book’s subtitle, Revolt and Resignation, suggests ultimate capitulation. Amery suffered the brutality of the Holocaust. For him, unlike Elie Wiesel, for example, the experience intensified a feeling that life is absurd. Two years after his final book, on suicide, Amery took his own life.

Amery discusses how an awareness of the swift passage of time becomes a central preoccupation of the elderly. They recall the past as scattered bits of unrelated memory. The future is so uncertain as to hold little hope. Amery describes how a woman looking in a mirror daily spots new signs of aging and deterioration and becomes alienated from herself and her body. He also deplores “social aging,” which leads the elderly to realize they will never attain their full potential; it is painful for them to watch a new generation take over positions of power and prestige. Another disturbing factor is the inability of the elderly to keep pace with new ideas and developments – personal computers offering a modern case in point. In his final essay, “To Live with Dying,” Amery confesses that he “cannot relate to the absurdity of faith in a life that continues after death.”

Robert Seymour offers a Christian viewpoint, as is indicated in the subtitle Living the Senior Years with Integrity and Faith. Pastor emeritus of Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a graduate of Yale Divinity School with a doctorate from Edinburgh, Seymour found the transition to retirement five years ago less painful and more rewarding than he had thought it would be. His work with medical people on issues of ethics, as well as with boards of retirement centers and home health agencies, has given him the background to address the problems and options of the aging with skill and understanding.

Seymour advises retirees to sever former career connections; since we define ourselves by our occupations, our spiritual challenge is to re-establish a personal identity. We must not only know but accept ourselves if we are to attain personal integration. Coping with change is inevitable. Inspiration may be taken from John the Baptist’s words about jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The aging should avoid an obsession with health, Seymour counsels. If Seymour were faced by the woman in Amery’s book who became despondent over her loss of youthful appearance, he would urge her to cultivate her inner spirit. Helpful in nourishing this spirit are intergenerational groups. Most older people can detect God’s involvement in their personal history if they look at their lives from a theological perspective.

The author deplores the tendency to stereotype older people. Physicians often are prejudiced against the elderly because they see them chiefly as patients. Actually, studies reveal that older adults rate their quality of life higher than do middle-aged and younger adults.

In “Paying Attention to the Exit Signs” Seymour expresses regret that 80 percent of elderly people die in hospitals among strangers. He favors greater use of living wills. While he thinks hastening death is an option which must be considered, he warns it can be a “slippery slope.” His final suggestion is that we celebrate our deathday in the spirit of the apostle Paul, who celebrated all of life, including death.

COPYRIGHT 1995 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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