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Aging Gracefully
Seeking God across a lifespan
by Amelia Eudy

Bishop John J. Snyder, retired bishop of Saint Augustine, is active in prison ministry, works with the mentally and physically handicapped and still has an office at the diocesan high school which bears his name. His current schedule rivals the 60-70 hours per week he was working while bishop of the diocese. And he is 82-years-old.

Born in 1925 when the life expectancy for men was just 60-years-old, the bishop is just one example of how individuals can live gracefully at any age.

“Without the grace of God you can’t age gracefully,” Bishop Snyder says from his home at Casa San Pedro, an independent living retirement facility built and maintained by the Diocese of Saint Augustine and located on the grounds of Marywood Retreat Center in Jacksonville. The facility’s main purpose is to house the retired priests of the diocese.

The bishop considers aging a spiritual journey and at the core a strong prayer life, which he acknowledges having more opportunity for now.

“We cannot defy the fact of our mortality …we don’t know how much time is ahead,” he says. “Someone can say, ‘I had an enriching and rewarding life, but what is ahead is most important.”

Mary Ruth Mustonen, PCSG (Professional Certificate in Spiritual Gerontology), administrator of Casa San Pedro, has been with the home since it opened in 2001 and considers her work there a journey with the residents. All are more than 80-years-old and “doing fantastic.” While some are struggling with the physical condition of aging, they are trying not to lose their independence, she observes. She also cares for her mother, who is 87-years-old and lives with her.

In a world dominated by a youthful culture and the struggle to remain young, words like “elderly” and “senior” can bear depressing connotations. Guided by the teachings of Richard Johnson, Ph.D., PCSG, founder of Senior Adult Ministry at the Johnson Institute for Maturing Adult Faith Formation and Spiritual Gerontology in St. Louis, Mo., Mary Ruth wants to change people’s attitudes about growing older.

“We need to understand what aging is really all about,” Mary Ruth says. “The majority of people look at it as ‘I’m dying.’ If we look at all the intervals of life, it’s really just a maturation process.”

According to Mary Ruth, aging gracefully means “being ageless in the Lord and changing our attitudes about maturation.” Even seniors with physical limitations can age gracefully, if they consider the transition into aging “as a freedom to grow spiritually and gain a true sense of who we are as children of God,” she observes.

“If your interior life is growing, losses can be accepted a little more easily,” she says.

Bishop Snyder acknowledges the fact that he has been “incredibly blessed” with friends, family and good health, which he continues to use “to serve people and to serve [the Lord].”

Mary Ruth feels parishes need to do more to educate themselves about how to incorporate maturing adults into their faith communities and offer them more opportunities to serve. In a recent survey of dioceses within the state of Florida, Mary Ruth found only one diocese that had a ministry directed specifically toward maturing adults. “How do we view our seniors, as elderly or as wise people?” she asks. “Don’t they have wisdom to impart to us today?”

Dr. Johnson’s senior adult ministry is dedicated to the faith development needs of adults in all Christian denominations in the second half of life, according to the ministry’s website

Dr. Johnson, whose books include, The 12 Keys to Spiritual Vitality: Powerful Lessons on Living Agelessly and Parish Ministry for Maturing Adults, has a plan to help maturing adults age gracefully. Some of these lessons include “seeing love everywhere” and “giving to others.”;

He separates maturing adults into three categories: The Boomers who are adults between the ages of 55 to 70. The Builders, generally ages 70-75 when some impairment of daily living occurs, and The Elders who are not distinguished by their age but by the signs that their bodies have physically slowed down. Parishes especially, he says, need to recognize these demarcations and not lump these groups together as “seniors.”

“Aging is the driving force of all growth,” Dr. Johnson says. “As we move forward we are being forced to let go, but everything in our culture is telling us to hang onto our youth.

“Aging is more spiritual than physical. As (we) mature our spiritual pace quickens,” he explains. “We are supposed to see this and embrace it.”

According to Dr. Johnson’s literature maturing adults need a new vision of aging that:

• Lifts them up,

• Accents the positive purpose of later life

• Connects them with God’s abundant grace. Without spiritual purpose maturing adults can slip into unhealthy behaviors and ageist attitudes that rob them of the joy, richness and purpose of later life.

Bishop Snyder is thankful as he remains positive, keeps active and embraces aging - an example of what Dr. Johnson calls a “spiritual healing elder” (those who comprise the top 15 percent of elders) and living a life of spiritual wellness.

“Opening myself up to the Lord will enable me to continue to serve and live life to its fullest until God calls me home,” Bishop Snyder says.

Ways to Age Gracefully

The following points are excerpts taken from The 12 keys to Spiritual Vitality: Powerful Lessons on Living Ageless, 1998, by Richard Johnson, Ph.D. They are foundational principles of aging and spirituality that help us open-up to the special grace of our mature years, and taste life in abundance.
1. Transform your attitudes about aging
2. Seek love everywhere
3. Delight in connectedness
4. Live in the “Now”
5. Accept your true self
6. Forgive others and self
7. Let go of anger and inner turmoil
8. Give yourself to others
9. Celebrate your faith
10. Discover personal meaning in life
11. Make your feelings work for you
12. Achieve balance in your life