by Mark Stephenson
This article is part of The Third Third of Life Toolkit—a collection of resources for ministry to and with people ages 55 and over, brought to you by two ministries of the Christian Reformed Church in North America: Disability Concerns and Faith Formation Ministries.
After my mom and dad retired at ages 60 and 62, they hooked up their Avion travel trailer to their SUV and explored the United States for about six months each year. As a retired letter carrier from Michigan, Dad never wanted to see another snowflake the rest of his life!
Mom and Dad made friends all over the country, volunteered for Disaster Response Services, and spent several winters in Hemet, California, where they assisted another couple, with whom they had become friends through their Avion Travelcade club, as the wife’s dementia progressed. When Dad’s liver cancer put them on notice that he had three to six months to live, they sold their truck and trailer and bought a small car that Mom would feel comfortable driving after Dad was gone.
Dad died when Mom was 75, and she lived another 15 years. As our family walked with her through her final years, we learned in a personal way that change marks every season of life.
In the early years after the passing of her husband of 54 years, Mom mainly just needed emotional support. A few years after Dad’s passing, we helped her move from her home into a condo. Mom loved not having to worry about the lawn or the snow and still had plenty of room for her and her beloved cat, Maggie, and to host family and friends. As she developed dementia and it worsened, even the lighter requirements of condo living became too much for her. I wrote several reflections about her and our journey during those final years.
To help us navigate the challenges of lovingly caring for Mom, my siblings and I hired a specialist to help us think through the challenges and find the right resources. We created a covenant with one another in hopes of warding off the kinds of battles siblings often have during this difficult time. We tried to engage Mom as much as possible in the decisions that affected her, but as time went on, those decisions increasingly fell into our hands. We helped Mom and Maggie the cat move into assisted living, then to a dementia care unit, and finally to a nursing facility. Even after Mom’s ability to speak was gone, she found a way to give me a precious expression of her love. Mom passed away in April 2013.
The Five Tasks
In the third third of life, changes come with new opportunities and circumstances and with the loss of abilities, of relationships, and of people. These changes push people to embark on five important tasks—renegotiating their answers to these big questions:
- Who am I (identity)?
- Why am I here (purpose)?
- Who is important to me and why (relationships)?
- What is most important (values)?
- What difference is my life making (meaning)?
Biblical and personal reflection on each of these questions bears rich fruit. For this part of our toolkit, let’s focus mainly on the first question: Who am I?
People identify themselves with things like their work, their most significant relationships, and their abilities. But when children leave home, or our living situation changes, or our work ceases by choice or by necessity, an anchor of identity pulls loose. At such times, we might ask,
- “Who am I, now that my wife has died?”
- “How can I be a mother to my son and daughter-in-law when my daughter-in-law wants nothing to do with our family?”
- “I love my new home in the sun belt, but I feel a bit lost after leaving my old friends behind.”
The Bible assures us that our identities do not depend on what we do or don’t do, where we live, or how our relationships are going. God creates each person in his image (Gen. 1:27), and God gives each believer their identity. Just as nothing can separate believers from God’s love, so also nothing can change the identity of a believer.
In 1 John 3 we hear the comforting reminder that we are children of God, but in this too there is mystery: “What we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2). When life’s biggest changes challenge our understanding about ourselves and our place in the world, we confront mystery. “Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). In the new heaven and new earth we will come to understand our true identities.
As your congregation ministers to and with people in the third third of life, remember that along with all of the practical challenges that arise in the third third of life, many older adults are wrestling with the five tasks of redefining their identity, purpose, relationships, values, and meaning. We hope that the resources we offer in this toolkit will help all of our readers in that journey.
Questions to Consider
We encourage you to consider with others in your congregation how you might answer the following questions about the five tasks mentioned above. And don’t forget to involve the experts: the members of your church who are in their third third of life!
We have provided above a brief biblical reflection on identity. What resonates with you? What would you add or change?
How might you help congregation members understand their identity, especially those whose lives have changed dramatically as they have aged?
What does the Bible say about the purpose of each believer’s life? How might you communicate that within your congregation?
How, for example, does a man in his eighties continue life with a deep sense of purpose even though he lost some of his abilities as a result of stroke and several of his loved ones have passed away?
The Bible commands believers to love God above all and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus calls us to treat others as we want them to treat us.
What is day-to-day life like for the members of your church who are in their third third of life? (You’ll have a wide variety of answers here.) How do they want others to treat them?
In what ways are their relationships changing as they age?
What is most important to members in their first third of life? To those in their second third? To those in their third third?
How can younger people grow in wisdom by noting the values of people who know they are closer to the end of their lives?
People in the third third of life know that most of their lives have already been lived. Why do some try to run from this fact and others embrace it? How do the older members of your congregation find meaning in the joys and sufferings that life has brought their way?
One more thing: how would you answer these questions yourself: Who am I? Why am I here? What is happening with the relationships in my life? What is most important? What difference is my life making? And how will you help members of your congregation reflect personally and biblically on them?
By wrestling with these questions together and by giving the third-thirders of your congregation opportunities to speak and to be heard, you will all grow in wisdom and love.
Mark Stephenson served as a pastor of two CRC congregations and then became director of CRC Disability Concerns in 2006. He and his wife, Bev, have five living children, three daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren. Their oldest daughter, Nicole, lives joyfully with severe multiple disabilities.
If you’re part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and you have questions about how to strengthen your church’s ministry to and with people in the third third of life, one of Faith Formation Ministries’ Regional Catalyzers would love to talk with you about ideas and strategies.