Nursing homes, to me, are incredibly depressing. My great grandmother, affectionately called “Mamaw,” lived to be 94 years old, and, as a Christian, was thankful for all God had done in her life and the experiences he used to bring him glory through her. But she still hated her time in the nursing home—for good reasons. The elderly are seldom visited, the people around them are dying, and many of the people they’ve known most of their lives are dead or dying. They’re at the end of their lives; it’s depressing.
I find nursing homes difficult to visit, in all honesty, because they are distinct reminders of the shortness of our lives, the change we can go through, and the possibility that someday we too could be there. The inevitability of this progression through life led explorers like Ponce De Leon on dangerous trips in hopes of finding the Fountain of Youth.
Ezekiel Emanuel wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” explaining that while “death deprives us of all the things we value... living too long is also a loss.” He bases his argument on the idea that productivity of people essentially ends around 60-70 years old. This is shortly after their last real productive “contribution” to society and others, and shortly before mental and physical functions begin to slow. After all, living to be 75 helps us avoid living in the depressing halls of the nursing home with the feeble, the ineffectual, and the dying.
This idea measures the value of life by productivity, which is not at all how God defines our value. Emanuel’s utilitarian mindset gives legitimacy to the rationale of wanting to avoid the years past 75. Those final years, to Emanuel, scream nothing but mental and physical deterioration, manifested in nursing homes.
An article by Jonathan Rauch - again in The Atlantic - explains the reasons for mid-life crisis by referring to the “U-Curve of happiness”— an emotional parabola measuring the trends of happiness through life. The curve descends around the late teenage years, turns around at the age 50, and picks up steam at age 75.
This curving progression of happiness through life is evident. As a child, we take joy in the simple, beautiful things of life like bubbles, dandelions, and playgrounds. At the end of our lives, as the older generation, we find joy in the younger people around us, primarily our grandchildren. Mostly separated from the stresses of work and everyday life, grandparents return to the simplistic joys of life.
As Christians, our greatest joy can be found in looking back on how God has worked, seeing how God is working now, and looking forward to what God has in store (whether that’s your graduation or your eternal life with God after death). Notice a trend? It’s God. I believe my great-grandmother understood that well.
God’s constant work in our lives does not mean we should like the nursing home. Mamaw certainly didn’t. At its core, it is a depressing place. But we can draw a valuable lesson from Emanuel’s article, from the U-curve of happiness, and from nursing homes.
I recommend that we never lose grasp of the simple joys in life. As we grow older and move closer towards the golden years, we should remember that each moment and interaction in our life is an opportunity to grow more and more like Christ. As seniors move out of their college years (or into more college years) and as we move farther down the U-curve of happiness, we need to make sure we don’t agonize over current and future sufferings—we might miss the simpler joys. Don’t forget that God can work anything for good. Trust in Christ’s promises, like Joshua 1:9 and John 15:10-11.