“How to Get Better as You Get Older,” Ensign, Dec. 1975, 49
What happens to us spiritually, once we’re sixty-five and “retired”? Well, we have two choices: we can retire the spirit along with the body and find ourselves with time on our hands, waiting to die. Or we can realize that time is in our hands and redouble our efforts to make our eyes single to the glory of God. He has made a cheerful promise to those who do so: “Your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you: and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.” (D&C 88:67.)
The challenge preceding that promise can make old age a time of continued spiritual progress, rather than a time of painful groping and discouragement. Howard and Selma Kern Johnson, a retired couple who were married fifty-seven years ago in the Logan Temple, are a good example. They are happy people—happy to greet the Saints, happy in their association with each other, radiantly grateful to the Lord for his goodness and anxious to use every available opportunity to serve him in return.
Brother Johnson, at eighty, serves as a second-mile home teacher and as secretary to the Preston (Idaho) Third Ward high priests group, and Sister Johnson directs the Relief Society Chorus with seventy-seven years worth of energy. Going to the temple, though a regular occurrence for them, is no mere habit, but a precious experience each time.
“Our testimonies mean more to us each year,” says Sister Johnson. “I hope that they will continue to grow until our days on earth are ended.”
There are over 170,000 Latter-day Saints who are sixty-five years of age or older. Too often we in this age group brood over our declining physical powers and ignore the increasing knowledge and special experiences that come at no other time in life. We must have the spiritual strength to glory in being sixty-five or eighty and regard the approaching years as an achievement rather than a defeat.
I call this the “iron rod” approach to old age. Father Lehi saw not only the young but also the old reaching the tree of life and eating the delicious fruit of the love of God, an experience that was most joyous to the body and spirit. How can any of us, particularly as we approach the end of our life, afford to let go of that iron rod?
How strong and comforting this rod is! From it comes the knowledge that the Lord God decreed a temporal death for all of us, but it does not come until we have had time to learn how to repent and be redeemed through faith on Christ. How comforting it is to know that our loving Father has appointed unto each of us the days of our probation! (See D&C 29:41–43.) Oh, the power in knowing that after death Jesus can and will raise us all to immortality and eternal life if we follow the iron rod!
I have always enjoyed Golda Meir’s crisp statement, “Being seventy is not a sin.” No, indeed. And it is inconceivable that the Lord would want half a million old, confused, bored Latter-day Saints in his kingdom! We cannot blame him if we are crabby or dull old men and women. It was never intended to be so.
I know some older Latter-day Saints who excuse themselves from spiritual activities by saying they are “too old to sin.” They claim they don’t need to pray, read the scriptures, or attend meetings as much as they did when they were young. In their minds the many years of paying tithing and serving the Lord will amply qualify them for eternal glory. Others feel the young people should take their place in Church activity.
One man whom I know deprived the Lord, his family, and his friends of his rich life’s experiences when he succumbed to depression, saying, “No one wants me anymore because I am old.” He has since become preoccupied with fears of physical disability, living in a nursing home, suffering in loneliness, or being a burden to his children.
These attitudes obscure the meaning of life. They are not from the Lord. As Latter-day Saints understanding the preexistence, we should have a unique view of aging. There may be no difference between the ages of our spirits and those of our grandchildren when we consider the eternities. We are as capable now of having the same joyous spiritual discoveries and profound spiritual experiences as we have ever been. I am grateful beyond measure that the Lord did not “retire” Sister Clark and me at age sixty-five but instead called us to full-time temple service four years later. And thousands who are joining the Church now bless the spiritual energy of a far-from-retired eighty-year-old prophet who called for us to “lengthen our stride” in missionary work. President Marion G. Romney, with a characteristic touch of humor, reminds us of how easily we can lose our zest for discovery: “You can tell a man’s age,” he says, “by the amount he suffers when he hears a new idea.”
A person can never retire from working on his testimony no matter what age he is. A testimony is built every day by developing iron-rod spiritual self-reliance. In my experience I’ve found several things that will help build testimony and enrich that vital spiritual life:
Have regular and sincere prayer, alone and with others. Exercise priesthood. Heal the sick through prayer, faith, the laying on of hands.
Visit or write old friends to whom you are indebted.
Attend priesthood, Relief Society, and sacrament meeting faithfully.
Pay tithing, even if it is only “a widow’s mite.”
Hold your own or visit your children’s family home evenings.
Go to the temple, even in a wheelchair, to hear again the covenants you have made.
Read your patriarchal blessing often.
Indicate to your bishop your willingness to serve as your age and circumstances allow. Be diligent in the callings you are given.
Prepare talks, whether you deliver them or not.
Study the Sunday School lessons.
Complete your book of remembrance.
Organize and distribute family treasures. Prepare your will.
Maintain a program of self-improvement through regular, suitable exercise and eating habits.
Attend education weeks, lectures, and community programs.
Travel to see the places you have always wanted to see.
Read great books; and make the scriptures your constant companion.
Compile your life history for your posterity.
Continue in your patriarchal responsibilities if you’re a father. Prophesy as inspired. Bless your grown children as invited. Share experiences and give advice to your children and grandchildren.
Most important, bear testimony at every opportunity of the goodness of God. This is a joyful opportunity, and indeed, an obligation to us who are witnesses of the power of the gospel to transform lives. Not only should we speak this testimony but we should write it. It can be a source of guidance and inspiration to our children and our friends. Our unborn grandchildren have a right to know how we felt personally about God and his guidance in our lives—good times or bad. One of the evidences that we are holding to the iron rod is our personal written testimony of the faith by which we lived out our lives unto death. This can be as precious to our children as Lehi’s testimony is to his descendants today.
Vincent and Shirley Larsen, who recently moved to northern Utah after Brother Larsen retired from his Denver, Colorado, job, say they have found much more time to read and study the gospel, do genealogical work, and attend the temple than they had before retirement. “These are things you can’t do without getting increased spirituality and activity in the Church,” Brother Larsen said.
Glen L. and Ruth Graham Enke joined the Church in their mature years and are both retired. “I’m not kidding myself when I look at my life before and now,” Brother Enke said. “I just couldn’t be as strong and confident about the future as I am now at age sixty-five. I don’t worry about the time when I may lose my partner in marriage, for I know that someday we shall be together with our children.”
“I get cold chills when I think what these later years would be like without the gospel,” Sister Enke said. “When Dad died, Mother cried and cried. How I wished she could have been consoled as I was by my faith. How comforting the laws of the gospel are! They bring renewed hope and good cheer to the later years of our lives.”
Blind and confined to a wheelchair, ninety-nine-year-old Hilda Johnson, a Norwegian convert to the Church, recently was in the Provo Temple to have a daughter sealed to her. “The Lord has given me ninety-nine years. At least I can give him two hours in the temple,” she said.
Brother Kenneth V. Baugh, a former Logan bishop, finds temple work to be a spiritually enlightening force in his life. “When I don’t go, I miss it,” he said. “I find most of my associations in the Church. I realize more and more the value of the gospel and the effect it has in people’s lives.”
This type of spirituality engenders creativity, disciplining the mind, heart, and body. With it you won’t be preoccupied with the things you can’t change, and you can center your efforts on the things that make a difference. I find myself asking how my time can be improved and how things can be made more beautiful and useful. I’ve seen dozens of inspiring examples.
When Spencer Cornwall retired after twenty-five years as director of the Tabernacle Choir, rather than spend his time worrying about what might happen to him, he spent it making it happen. I saw him at eighty-one using his rich background of choir experience to write a “how to lead a choir” textbook and heard him give lively lectures on directing music for education weeks.
Brother Albert Atwood retired years ago in Castro Valley, California, but planned a dynamic maturity by collecting and selling wild flower, tree, and shrub seeds. It became a fascinating, thriving business-hobby while he continued his Church service.
A retired couple, the Sedgwicks of Provo, not only work in the temple, but have founded a mini-business by turning a common household freezer into a bread mixer at a small cost.
Sister Jessie Evans Smith, wife of President Joseph Fielding Smith, designed in her later years an ingenious magnifying glass, which, fitted to the chest, allowed older people to read small print or do fine crochet work.
Sister Rose Wallace Bennett had a special entry to her house built for her grandchildren. As each came in, he would find a seat with twenty toys placed on it, one of which he could choose to keep for the afternoon. This developed a close bond of family togetherness with Grandma.
Brother W. O. Robinson gave his life to dance instruction in the Church. Even at eighty, he demonstrated ballroom dancing at Brigham Young University.
Maude Taylor Bentley, now ninety, wrote a book at age eighty on the sorrows, trials, triumphs, successes, and happiness experienced on the frontiers of Old Mexico.
Pearl Christensen Card, pioneer Latter-day Saint mother, widowed and now living in Canada, seems to typify spiritual self-reliance at its best. Eighty-six years of age, weighing only ninety-eight pounds, and bent over with operations for cancer and arthritis, she cannot hear well or see to read, but she writes letters anyway, using a large magnifying glass. She uses a cane, but it is for her body—not her spirit. She visits her children as she can, enjoying her eight sons and daughters and her many grandchildren. And they are unto her “a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age.” (Ruth 4:15.)
When asked her opinion of the later years of life, Sister Card replied, “Old age isn’t for sissies.” She’s right! It is for the resolute who know that there is so much to do in so short a time in our lives.
In my opinion, doing things to honor God is the Lord’s self-renewal system, combating discouragement that may lead to senility. On the surface it appears to be easier to be sick than to struggle, easier to withdraw than to meet new challenges. Instead, holding to the iron rod is actually easier, since it helps to solve problems, not avoid them.
Spiritual self-reliance comes with a price tag. Those not willing to pay the price die many times before the spirit leaves the body. Those who have continued to grow spiritually throughout their lives die only once and their death still becomes a blessing. Perhaps it is best expressed by the Lord himself: “And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them.” (D&C 42:46.)