My preconceptions about older people first began to crumble when one of my congregants, a woman in her 80s, came into my office seeking pastoral care. She had been widowed for several years but the reason for her distress was not the loss of her husband. It was her falling in love with a married man. As she shared her story with me over a cup of tea and Kleenex, I tried to keep a professional and compassionate countenance, though, internally, I was bewildered by the realization that even into their 80s, people still fall for one another in that teenage, butterflies-in-the-stomach kind of way.
One of the strange and wonderful features of my job as a minister is that I get to be a confidant and advisor to people at all stages of life. I’ve worked with people who are double and even triple my age. Experience like this is rare; our economic structure and workforce are stratified, and most people are employed within their own demographics. But because I’m a minister in a mainline denomination with an aging base, the people I primarily interact with are over the age of 60. I came into my job assuming that I, a Korean-American woman in my mid-30s, would not be able to connect with these people — they’re from a completely different racial and cultural background than me. It did not take long for me to discover how very wrong I was.
We all have joys, hopes, fears, and longings that never go away no matter how old we get. Until recently, I mistakenly associated deep yearnings and ambitions with the energy and idealism of youth. My subconscious and unexamined assumption was that the elderly transcend these desires because they become more stoic and sage-like over time. Or the opposite: They become disillusioned by life and gradually shed their vibrancy and vitality.
When I initially realized that my assumptions might be wrong, I set out to research the internal lives of older people. Who really were they, and what had they learned in life? Using my congregation as a resource, I interviewed several members in their 90s with a pen, notebook, a listening ear, and a promise to keep everyone anonymous. I did not hold back, asking them burning questions about their fears, hopes, sex lives or lack thereof. Fortunately, I had willing participants. Many of them were flattered by my interest, as America tends to forget people as they age.