Aging Well the Puritan Way by Bob Ritzema

By Bob Ritzema 

Where should we look for models of how to age well? Who has a good understanding of what makes for good psychological, social, and spiritual functioning in old age? Well, how about the Puritans?

Richard Baxter

That, at least, is where Maxine Hancock (Professor Emerita of Interdisciplinary Studies and Spiritual Theology, Regent College, Vancouver, BC) would look. Throughout her career Hancock studied the writings of 17th Century Puritans. She was intrigued by what Puritan minister Richard Baxter had written about the characteristics he observed in elderly members of his congregation. Hancock thinks that Baxter and the Puritans had a more balanced approach toward aging that we have now.

How are we out of balance? Hancock thinks that aging well involves keeping a balance between realism and hope. First, we need to be aware that as we grow older we will decline physically and mentally, and that death awaits us all. That’s realism. Such realism needs to be balanced with hope, for alongside the declines that will occur with age many of us will experience gains. We may become more mature, more at peace with our pasts, wiser, and happier. The Puritans were definitely people of hope, with their ultimate hope resting in the promise of eternal life.

Hancock thinks this balance between realism and hope was lost in the 19th century as a consequence of the Victorian belief in progress. The Victorians put faith in the scientific advances of the day, advances that promised improved hygiene, nutrition, and medical care and thereby ever greater longevity. In that age of hope and optimism, there seemed little reason to focus on human decline and decrepitude–but this left Victorians unprepared for illness and death when these inevitably came. Like the Victorians, we live in a society hopeful that science will be able to slow and eventually reverse aging. Are we, like the Victorians, unbalanced between realism and hope?

Baxter, living in an age when realism and hope were in more balance, described three characteristics of aging well that he found in elderly members of his congregation. They displayed:

  • — Futurity—a continued focus on the future
  • Identity in Community—having a sense of identity based on membership in an intergenerational community
  • Fecundity—fruitfulness displayed by both growing personally and having beneficial effects on the community

I plan to eventually devote a post to each of these. For now, I have some initial reactions as to where I stand regarding these three characteristics. Here are my thoughts:

  • I think I am fairly future-oriented. I wonder, though, if this would be the case if I thought my life was growing short. I know I’m healthier than the average person well into the 7th decade of life. Should my optimism be based on such social comparisons, though?
  • I lost much of my identity and sense of community when I left my full-time job and relocated from where I had been living. I’m working on reestablishing identity and community, but find it difficult
  • I think I’m contributing to others both through part-time work and involvement in a church congregation. As to personal growth, I know I’m undergoing personal change, but I’ll have to think more about whether those changes constitute growth.

I’ve studied contemporary psychological and medical views on what it means to age well. It’s nice to look at the issue through another lens. I invite readers to reflect on whether you are aging as well as the Puritans did.

By Bob Ritzema

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