Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Dr. Richard P. Johnson believes there is a serious epidemic facing the world today: loneliness. 

This epidemic is especially found in older people, who often feel excluded or ignored. They are pushed to the periphery of their communities, being neither considered nor valued in modern society. Johnson contends that a population that can offer a wealth of wisdom and experience, and one that can still be very active in the Church, is being excluded. 

Johnson maintains that adult faith formation is vital for aging adults, yet it is the least developed of all ministries. Founder and director of Johnson Institute for Spiritual Gerontology & Lifelong Adult Faith Formation, he has dedicated much of his professional life to trying to enhance adult ministry by exploring the aging process and finding ways to engage the aging.

Learning to thrive

In a presentation about the importance of adult faith formation classes May 15 at the Pastoral Center in Richmond with concurrent live satellite presentations in Roanoke, Norfolk and Abingdon, he noted parish ministry for maturing adults should focus on spiritual, psychological and physical growth. It should help elders stay well of body, wise of mind and whole of spirit. 

A way to do this, he said, is to tailor formation classes to maturing adults’ needs. These classes can be an integral part of adults’ lives, providing both a spiritual and social safe place for seniors. Through inclusiveness and a deeper connection to God, they can learn to thrive, not just survive. 

A nationally-known pioneer of “spiritual gerontology,” a term he coined himself, Johnson said it is important to include the word ”spiritual” because religion plays a large part in the aging process. He sees aging as much more of a spiritual journey than a physical one. 

Johnson said he was “inexplicably drawn to gerontology” during his 30s and has written more than 40 books on the topic. He has also taught hundreds of adult ministry leaders and visited retirement centers across the country over the past three decades. 

“God is behind it,” he said. “I’m really not that smart.”

‘Elder,’ not ‘elderly’ 

Johnson began his presentation by asking attendees what they think about when they hear “elderly.” “Old,” “decrepit,” “frail” and “feeble” were some of the responses.

He then asked what comes to mind when hearing the word “elder,” and got a much different response. The audience responded with “wise,” “counselor,” “strong” and “sage.” 

Johnson said the word “elderly” should be erased from the English language as it has become a pejorative term with negative connotations. “Elderly” is focused on age in terms of years, while “elder” is focused on age in terms of wisdom. The elderly are disregarded, while elders are respected. Elders have been the living history books of the world for millennia.

Technology is creating a disconnect with elders, but this shouldn’t be the case, he said. While young people can Google just about anything to get facts, they aren’t necessarily getting wisdom, which Johnson explained is an entirely different concept.

Elders gain wisdom throughout life and throughout loss. Loss, Johnson said, is an important part of development. 

“Our growth in Christ is a progression of losses and gains strung together in a unique developmental succession,” he said. 

Johnson maintains that true wisdom requires an acceptance and embracing of aging and a conviction that one’s life will continue to have meaning until the very last breath. This means elders need to not only be valued by society, but by themselves as well.

Addressing what elders fear 

The epidemic of loneliness is not just a one-sided problem. As much as the younger generation ignores the older, elders oftentimes refuse help, not wanting to be a burden or admit that they can’t do something on their own, he said. 

Some elders are also afraid of the aging process and a loss of memory, independence and their sense of purpose. It is these fears that are keeping people from achieving what Johnson termed “spiritual vitality” or “agelessness.”

Agelessness can be achieved, he said, by seeking love everywhere, living in the now, accepting your true self, forgiving others, letting go of anger, celebrating faith and other actions. The first step is to transform one’s attitudes about maturation. Instead of being afraid or saddened by what one has lost over time, one should instead try to see these struggles in a different way. 

One example is dementia. The biggest fear of aging adults is the loss of memory. People with dementia may feel embarrassed, pitied and sad. But, Johnson said, through God’s eyes, this is a challenge to surrender oneself fully to God and an invitation to believe in God’s love. Instead of seeing oneself as a burden and bother, those who have lost their independence are invited to trust in God and others for peace. 

There are other losses, such as loss of work, losing a spouse or a parent, having children move out of the house, a decrease in physical health and facing one’s mortality that can be isolating to elders. This is where parish ministry can help. 

“We can be spiritually transformed by aging when we embrace it for all it has to offer and engage fully in the process,” Johnson said in his presentation, which was sponsored by the diocesan Office of Christian Formation. “Aging is like a spiritual mentor. It is a part of God’s plan for our salvation.” 

Childlike wonder is liberating

Elders are also gifted with a return to innocence when they are filled with a childlike wonder and awe for the world they understand in a different way than the youth. In this way, aging can be liberating and can give the opportunity to work on one’s spiritual growth. 

Johnson identifed key components for a flourishing adult formation class. While the social aspect is important in building a community, it is also vital that the activities offered are engaging and focused on faith and personal development. 

He said it is also helpful for members to participate in community outreach projects. The group should be well-structured and organized, with regular meetings and gatherings, and with time dedicated to prayer, Scripture and reflection. 

Specialized lessons can be tailored to the audience and include focus on aging successfully, finding peace in retirement, providing spiritual companionship and writing a spiritual autobiography. These lessons can address many concerns of aging adults and help them find acceptance. 

According to Johnson, acceptance is a necessary virtue to achieve spiritual vitality.

“Wisdom recognizes that life itself is difficult, as is aging,” he said. “Wisdom acknowledges that tragedy exists. With its acceptance comes a transcendence.”

Help discern God’s call

Johnson explained that the support elders need from the Church changes as they age.

“They need the nurturance of care and compassion, the understanding of their real needs as they are now, the necessary help in discerning the call of God, the encouragement to continue their spiritual pilgrimage, and the direction to reach out to others in new ways,” he said.

A goal of this type of ministry is to help people “age successfully.” Johnson said “unsuccessful aging” is characterized by irritability, the inability to adapt to a changing world, holding on to rigid opinions, focusing on health problems and fears of the future. 

“Successful aging” is characterized by having a generous view of others, a giving attitude and a caring relationship with nature, and are reflective, hopeful and have the courage to deal with their own mortality, he noted. 

Johnson has high expectations that parish ministry for maturing adults will grow, with elders taking their rightful, respectful place in society.

“I see armies of spiritually maturing adults rising up as a renewing force for good in our culture. I see them taking on deeper and broader roles in our Church and in our community,” he said. “I see them rising to become true sages and wisdom figures. I can think of very few human endeavors that offer more potential fulfillment and personal growth.” 

Editor’s note: To learn more about Dr. Johnson and his work, visit senioradultministry.com.


Keys to successful aging

According to Dr. Richard P. Johnson, people who are maturing positively:

n have evolved a generous view of others and of the world, which includes maintaining a forgiving stance toward faults and inadequacies in themselves and others.

n have a giving attitude toward themselves and others. They give more financially than do most people according to their means.

n form a caring and positive relationship with nature. They are concerned about the quality of the environment that will be passed on to future generations.

n are reflective and seek self-understanding.

n have had a pivotal event or events that led to transition or re-birth experiences. Everyone has such events, but generative people use them to grow and expand while non-generative people withdraw and blame others for their misfortunes.

n simplify their lives. Generative people take time to gain the insight needed to clear away clutter and confusion. They learn to set limits.

n have the courage to change both themselves and conditions around them.

n describe themselves as spiritual. They trust God or some Higher Power, and they trust the life process, perspective and creative insight.

n are sought out by others for counsel, wisdom, perspective and creative insight. 

n are committed to continued learning. Generative people often spend considerable time learning on their own or attend a variety of workshops and classes.

n are clearly engaged in caring behaviors toward themselves and others. 

n are evolving healthier eating and exercise patterns.

n find laughter and tears coming easily and spontaneously.

n are hopeful people. They take their dreams seriously and their lives demonstrate that some dreams do come true.

n have the courage to deal with their own mortality, making appropriate plans as needed.