When we planned an issue of Vision devoted to aging, we naturally thought about the experts in our midst: the retired members of NACC who have spent decades journeying with patients through good times and bad. We sent several questions to our email list of retired members, and we received dozens of responses, ranging from a few sentences to a few pages. We share a selection below, with our heartfelt thanks to everyone who took the time to consider their own life journey.
What are some of the challenges you experience as you grow older? What are some of the rewards?
Adjusting to the fact that I don’t have as much free time, because the amount of time I spend at doctors’ offices is increasing, even though I am still fairly healthy. Things in my body just go wrong more often than they used to. Also, I have more fear as I get older about when is “the big one” going to hit me. The biggest rewards have to do with not having to do as much. It really is OK to sit around for a morning if I really feel like it, which is rare. Jane W. Smith
We count our blessings and hope for good days to come. Sometimes we stretch out on the couch or bed with a good book or to take a short nap. We make sure the calendar is filled with interesting activities to look forward to. We look back with pleasure on what we have done with hope in our hearts that there will be good things ahead. Tom and Pat Regan
Aging seemed to happen when I wasn’t looking. I don’t feel older in my mind, but my body lets me know that I’m like the grass that is here one day and withers and dies the next day. My dog is getting old, but if he dies soon, I don’t think it’s fair to get another one, as I don’t know if I’ll be around to care for it. I am treated differently now, often condescendingly, as if I can’t make my own decisions or I need more help. I’d like to be able to say that it’s a great time. A time to see the world. A time to … but truthfully, I don’t find it that appealing. It is what it is, I guess: preparation for heaven and perhaps reflection on this life. Jeanine Kavanaugh
As the majority of my ministry was spent in long-term care, one blessing that I enjoy now is that when my body shows another sign of my own aging, I am not as shocked or surprised as my peers. I move quickly to a sense of “oh, yes, I remember Mrs. ____ complaining of this. So this is what she was experiencing.” Karin “Teddi” Tomsic
It was during my transition from my 50s into my 60s that I came up with a mantra for myself: that as I aged, I would be sure to grow with awareness into what I was becoming. I did not know what that would look like or how I would feel about it, but I continued to be alert to the wisdom of the Scriptures. Of course, I had concerns about my physical appearance as well. But I am growing into what I am becoming instead of an idea of what I should look like. Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner
What have you learned that could enrich the next generation of chaplains?
Be ready to be the one learning from your patients. Your listening skills and honest attention will be your greatest strengths. Connie May
Make sure you have a hobby or something fun to spend time with; don’t wait for retirement to make time for yourself and your own needs. Many don’t make it to retirement. Don’t let your “life’s work” be your life; find balance along the way. When I retired, it took me almost a year to not feel exhausted, and to catch up on my own rhythm of life. Mary T. O’Neill
I have learned how to stand on the holy ground of another person and listen as well as continually gain a deeper knowledge of myself and what I bring from my history to each interaction. I am using the same skills at each “job” and I am doing it better. As I am aging, I find the gift is the multitude of skills I have developed and the ability to use them creatively in another growth cycle. William Korthals
I can let go of many external things I used to consider very important. I find I have a stronger focus on my inner life and question how I am growing in spiritual health. More often I ponder the attitude of Jesus in his way of life: “Not my will but thine be done.” Sister Agnes Reinert
I hyphenate “re-minder” as a way to keep turning my mind around, to keep thinking anew (what the Bible calls metanoia), to keep growing lest I get stuck in old or stale mindsets. This is a key theme in my aging process and my life’s journey — keep dying to what was, so as to emerge into what can or will be. A trip to China enabled me to see cultural differences in the respect and reverence for the wisdom of the elderly. The recent death of my brother-in-law recreated for me the importance of end-of-life care and how I prepare for my own death. Each moment, each day is what you have. Even this morning I narrowly averted a major auto accident. I veered away into safety … whew, that was close. Gracias providentia divina. Richard Leliaert
The image of repositioning myself in the circle of ministry is very life-giving. The challenge of reframing skills to serve in a new way is exciting. And the gift of witnessing the formation of a new generation of chaplains gives permission to rest from our labors! Judith LoGerfo
Always offer a smile to everyone — listen — it’s not your agenda, it is always about the other person. God is in charge. When working in a difficult situation, reach out to anther professional for advice. Be yourself. Be enthusiastic, joyful, empathetic — invite another to pray and ask them if they would like to pray. Silence is OK. Listen to your gut and heart. Before any visit, always ask God what to say and help me not get in the way. Ellen Moore
What have you found to take the place of work in your life?
Having been sick before and after my retirement has offered me some found time for more reflection and more time to get to know the sisters in my community. Ellen Moore
Over these last six years, I have found life to be more challenging. I would not have chosen to spend my retired years being the 24-hour caregiver for my husband, Lou. Though Lou has fought valiantly to live with Parkinson’s disease, frequent falls and the progression of the disease have left him unable to walk. Sometimes our goals, hopes, and dreams are different than God’s. I feel blessed, however, that the skills I learned being a chaplain have enabled me to be a better caregiver of Lou. When illness occurs in a family, it affects not only the person, but everyone in the family, each in her own way. Our children and grandchildren worry about how long they have to be with a dad and grandpa they love immensely. Betty Skonieczny
The “ministry of presence” is very real. Just like our formal work of giving retreats and individual spiritual direction, it enables us to walk with people and be a significant part of their lives. This year I wrote a letter to the city bus company to request that they restore the route that stops by the hospital, to help those with walkers and wheelchairs as well as the parents (the poor, who use the bus too) bringing babies and children to doctors. And it was granted. I take the bus everywhere, and on the bus I pray for everyone – first, generically, and that has evolved into asking God to be with each one – in all their cares and needs and to draw us all closer to him, deepen our faith and let us feel how much he loves each one. Sr. Pia Bautista
I left my beloved ministry in order to help my son raise his son. God gave me the strength to make that sacrifice. I feel that God has anointed me “with the richest oil” to act with the purest of intentions, to provide the gentlest kind of guidance to my grandson who is eight years old now. I embrace the God who gives me the daily strength. Stretching myself into parenting when I thought I was all done with it is how I am flourishing in my older years in the courts of the Lord. I realize that I am still learning new things, that I am still growing, and that I am “still green.” My very greenness indicates that I am “still full of sap,” full of energy, full of the spirit of God within me. I am the tree that is not breaking but bending, that is resilient, as trees do bend. Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner
I have enjoyed travelling with my husband. In addition, I have taught CPE and physical therapy students on topics related to spiritual care. It has been a gift to me to share the wisdom and expertise from many years of chaplaincy with these students. I have also provided an annual program on topics related to end-of-life decision-making, and I co-facilitate a monthly grief group for my parish. I enjoy gardening, reading, exercising, watching the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Cardinals, and I relish downtime. I especially appreciate the opportunity to “be,” to reflect and to savor this phase of my life. Mary Lou O’Gorman
Are there things you would have done differently in your personal or professional life?
I would have trusted God’s process more. I no longer spend much time asking “why” questions and have moved to “what do I do with this” questions. Connie May
Yes, I would have spent even more time with my wife, even though she was completely involved in the leadership of deacon formation programs we led. Deacon L. H. Pete Velott
I am not so sure that I would have done anything differently, other than finishing my degree before I had our seven children. It was tough raising them and doing classes one at a time to finish. Charlotte M. Leas
I don’t think so. My path was my path. I have lived a lot for others — a big family to care for and lots of moves and resettling because of my husband’s military career. There have been many, many people and events that have been folded into my life as I went along, certainly including my decision to go back to school and study a field that I love, CPE, and then 25 years of active chaplaincy. Jane W. Smith
How has your spiritual or prayer life changed with age?
I find that spiritually, I can feel the closeness of God more during my daily living that when I was working on the hospital floor, or visiting hospice patients. God is more REAL. Charlotte M. Leas
I find myself wondering to myself if I really pray, or just stay conscious of God’s presence. I used to feel guilty for not volunteering at the local nursing home or hospital, but I know that I can’t be on my feet all day, and I know my tendency to stay once I am engaged, and I am afraid I would let myself or the patients down. Karin “Teddi” Tomsic
I love being able to lie in bed in the morning and do my meditation and centering prayer from there. I can pray for as long as I wish, without having to keep an eye on the clock. I feel more fluid in my prayer life and more expansive in my understanding of prayer. Mary T. O’Neill
When I stopped working, I took the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and that has solidified my prayer practice even more. This is an at-home, nine-month long Ignatian adventure. This experience drew me closer to God and deepened my prayer practice. I stay close to the Jesuit spirituality and offer myself as a spiritual director. Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner
Do you feel as old as you thought your parents were at your age?
I have lived 14 years longer than my mother did. I think my energy level and zest for life are much greater than either of my parents. I think that’s because for me there have always been new things to learn and explore. Jane W. Smith
Recognizing that I have reached a transitional stage in my life, I recall three things mentioned by my father. First, “I have been retired for more years than I worked.” Secondly, “I can’t believe I am still alive.” Finally, “If you have a wish to do something, do it. You will know if it is a good fit for you. It is better that you tried than to have let your fears prevent you from being what you wanted to be.” It was the example of my parents’ love and their zest for life which influenced me the most. Timothy John Doody
I admire their zest for life. Both were there to offer service to others, enjoyed life, and always wanted to learn new things. Both started art projects in later life. They both believed that God was always there for them. “Old” and “age” were not words in their vocabulary—nor are they in mine. Ellen Moore
Looking back, what are you most grateful for?
There is a sense of communion as I reflect on how each person has helped to create the person I have become. As a retired hospice chaplain serving the dying for 20 years, I have this sense that all my patients are in the welcoming committee for when I join them. I continue to await the time when the NACC creates opportunities for us emeritus members to team up with active members. Connie May
I am grateful for the Church – not because I always feel holy or uplifted there, but because of its constancy in my life. Like no other place, it’s where I go regularly to check in with God and myself. Jane W. Smith
The successful business man who shared: “When I was young the community cared for me. Now that I am old it is my time to give back to the community.” The several priests and religious who saw the gift of chaplaincy resident inside of me. They encouraged me to continue to knock on many doors in the pursuit of chaplaincy. The gift of prayer to an understanding God who answers even before we knock. And the wonderful woman who for the last twenty years journeyed with me. Being at each other’s side in sickness and in health. Timothy John Doody