Dear Scottish and English friends
I am so grateful to Maureen for this giving me this chance to share some thoughts about the James Houston Center for Faith and Successful Aging (www.jameshoustoncenter.com). But before I do, I want to take this opportunity, during this season of caregiving amid the COVID-19 pandemic, to thank Maureen and Jonathan and Bob Rendall (prior CEO of the Eric Liddell Center) for their abounding hospitality to me during my most recent visit to Scotland when I experienced a severe bout of insomnia complicated by jet lag. At trip’s end, I learned what it is like to be the recipient of Smartian-like care; and, most importantly, I gained deeper friendships with my 3 hosts. As we might say in America, Maureen, Jonathan and Bob don’t just ‘talk the talk’ but they also ‘walk the walk!’ Like the grace of God, their kindness came freely, and now I have lasting memories of sumptuous meals, warm times of fellowship, and long walks down Scottish country lanes laced with wild blueberries and raspberries.
Our Center/Centre is named in honor of Scottish-born, Dr. James Houston. At 98, Jim embodies the successful aging senior. Over his lifetime, he has done his utmost to avoid disease and disability, maximize his cognitive and physical fitness, while remaining actively engaged in purposeful, resilient living. Forever joyful, he remains committed to lifelong learning. Jim’s biography is characterized by spiritually inspired, sacrificial living. His remarkable career includes deep friendships with CS Lewis and other Christian leaders spanning 80 years. Jim benefited from his friendship with Lewis, which grew from a small, weekly group that met for over 4 years, until Lewis moved to Cambridge and Jim left for Canada to start Regents College in Vancouver. Jim values his friends and inspires them to greatness in Christ.
Our Center’s overall mission is to enhance the spiritual, emotional, economic, health & well-being of elders, their caregivers and their grandchildren thru congregations and faith-based organizations. As a Center, we ‘think global and act local” by promoting vetted, efficacious faith-based programs like Faith in Older People. We take a cradle to grave, intergenerational perspective that is promulgated through our interdisciplinary team of partners, their ministries, and our own unique set of programs that we offer or encourage (e.g., regional faith and successful aging conferences, purposeful ministries from seniors, disaster planning and assistance for vulnerable seniors and disabled persons, support of underserved congregations, dementia caregiver respite programs, dueling choir programs, the parent care readiness program that evaluates and improves the readiness of adult children to care for aging parents, life review programs aimed at capturing the life stories of older persons, grandparent support programs, aging veteran initiatives, widow / widower support programs, aging in place initiatives, aging prisoner programs and more).
Our Center is squarely behind the promotion of successful aging, which includes the concept of resilience. Some scientists in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, are shifting their perspectives from successful aging to “optimal aging,” though both are related to the concept of resilience. While some of the research emphasizes the relationships between value of healthy lifestyles, longevity, and a higher quality of life, other experts focus on genetic and socioeconomic backgrounds that work against successful aging. Given the realities of person’s situation, some face unavoidable risk. As Silverstein (2019) puts it in a publication of the Gerontological Society of America ‘s 2018 Trends in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, “You can be dealt a bad hand of cards but have the playing skills to make the most of it. These skills provide the basis for resilience, a trait that modulates the dichotomy between success and failure. You can be successful in your aging relative to both the challenges encountered and the resources at your disposal. It comes full circle back to resilience.” Our longitudinal research with 1,000 community dwelling seniors in Alabama has affirmed repeatedly the importance of healthy spirituality as a core resource for many successful agers. The spiritual faith of many older persons helps them find late life purpose and courage in facing the COVD-19 pandemic, chronic disease, dying and ultimately death.
Older people have little to no control over the rate at which they age, and they may also have fewer resources available to help them adapt to chronic diseases and other late life challenges. Despite these limitations, our Center believes that it is very empowering to recognize that we have some control of what we eat, how we choose to exercise, what we believe spiritually, how we exercise our faith, and how socially engaged we are in helping others and living life courageously. Approximately 80 percent of older persons in America belong to congregations, and their involvement in these congregations helps to buffer many of the negative aspects of aging. Most of us grew up in an age-graded culture that essentially says: we go to school, then we go to work, and then we retire. In contrast to this common cultural perspective, we argue that we go to school our entire lives, we work our entire lives, and, if we are wise, we learn to take respites along the way.
We are helping leaders in congregations ask a different set of questions grounded in their religious faith: “What is needed in the community that could not be accomplished unless the local church helped?” “How does a congregation learn to deal with Alzheimer’s in a constructive and supportive way?” “What can we do as a church about the isolation and loneliness brought about by COVID-19, dementia, and other pressing concerns?” Even health professionals such as neurologists, who specialize in the treatment of dementia, are acknowledging that faith-based (volunteer) respite care programs are an invaluable support to dementia patients and their family caregivers. What are we doing to support older people of color, who might be disproportionately impacted by this outbreak? And why does COVID-19 disproportionately impact the health of older people of color and their paid caregivers, their direct care workers?
Since our first book, A Vision for the Aging Church: Renewed Ministry to and from Seniors, we have received thousands of messages, and multiple requests to speak at Christian and professional conferences, hundreds of phone calls, and multiple site visits from pastors, faith-based gerontologists, and business leaders. We have worked with national and international Christian ministries and military chaplains, conducted elder care research and training at the US Air and Army War Colleges (the senior leadership schools of the Army and Airforce), helped two churches evaluate an elder care training program, organized multiple successful aging conferences with Protestant and Catholic congregations, presented plenary addresses on faith and successful aging to a broad range of faith-based communities and organizations, met some remarkable elders (oaks of righteousness) and, most encouragingly, have seen signs of great progress by the church, faith-based organizations, Christian volunteers, and seminaries since our last book was published. Additionally, we have been able to come along side some wonderful, sustainable, state-wide, national, and international, practical ministries that meet genuine human needs related to elders and those who care for them.
Despite these successes, we have been challenged to write a less academic book on ‘wisdom and aging.’ I recall a wonderful telephone conversation I had with an 81-year old, lively gentleman from Chicago, who had captured the essence of what we were trying to say in our first book: “I want to be a part of that army of senior saints you talked about … I want to turn the world ‘upside down’ with the love of Christ too!” But then he quickly added, “I didn’t understand half what you and Dr. Houston said in your book. What do I need to do now?” Using the title of a book written by a friend and geriatric psychiatrist, Dear Old Man we want to say to all who could not understand what we wrote, we hear you loud and clear! Our aim in this book is to see the journey, not from the balcony, but from being on the road of life ourselves.
With the current apocalyptic event of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is easy to be distracted from ordinary, everyday living. Hopefully, by the end of the year (2020), we will be back to more normal living. But our new book and Center are NOT just about what is normal or even what is being called now the “new normal;” instead, it is much more about discovering the extraordinary in the normal. We agree with C.S. Lewis, who certainly viewed every ‘normal’ person as an ‘eternal being.’ Though growing old is a part of normal living, we aim to address the uplifting truth that the older we grow, the more different and wiser we ‘can’ become, so that we are prepared to face whatever the future brings. We do not want to be tempted to believe that there is no ordinary living. But, as C.S. Lewis exclaimed in a wonderful service that Dr. Houston was privileged to hear one Sunday morning at Great St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, “There are no ordinary people.” Created in the ‘image and likeness of God,’ we are destined to live eternally in an unimaginably glorious future. Lewis’s extraordinary comment left Dr. Houston standing in awe and wonder of all his human companions, both living and deceased. For our incentive to be wise is not just for this world, but also for the life to come.
Michael W Parker, PhD/DSW; LCSW; PIP
Executive Director, James Houston Center for Faith and Successful Aging
Professor Emeritus, University of Alabama