We live in an ever-more-customizable world and enjoy more power than ever to shape our realities to suit our preferences, but a few things about the human experience, for now, anyway, remain universal: All of us will get older, then all of us will die.
While we have no choice in those matters, we can control how we grow old and what value we place on the experience and how well we incorporate the lessons aging offers into our actions. This is the topic of Bruderhof pastor Johann Christoph Arnold’s 11th — and, he says, his last — book. Rich in Years is set to be released on Nov. 1.
“I’ve said it many times, but this time I’m going to mean it,” Arnold joked last week during an interview at the Woodcrest community in Rifton last week. While he admitted that in the beginning, “I really did not want to write this book,” he said he started noticing in the local and national media an increase in talk about aging and quality of life, as well as the question of the right to die and an increase of anxiety about death.
Rich in Years is plainly written and reads quickly, weaving stories about people facing old age, dementia and death with Arnold’s own observations, Bible passages and commentary and the words of other writers and philosophers. Overall, the theme is acceptance of the inevitability of aging and death, the value to be gained from the experience and the critical importance, to both young and old, of serving others. The chapters are arranged along the curve a typical end-of-life arc, beginning with the realization of growing old and dealing with new limits and loneliness, to finding a new purpose and keeping faith and ending with letting go, and saying goodbye.
All sorts of people in all sorts of aging situations — dozens of anecdotes were collected for the book — are covered in Rich in Years; and Arnold, 72, even writes about his own heart troubles and near brush with death. Of the responses he’s been getting so far, Arnold says the chapter on dealing with dementia seems to have struck the deepest chord with readers.
“People are fascinated by that,” said Arnold. According to the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office, there are 3,000 in Ulster alone with Alzheimer’s.
“With every one of these patients, there’s a family that is suffering,” said Arnold. “The point of the book is to tell these families, have courage — Dad or Mom, or whoever he or she is, have served all their lives their community and their fellow man. Now it is time for us to stand by that person as long as that person is still in this world. It is amazing what someone can learn from an Alzheimer’s patient. … “It doesn’t matter how incapacitated you are, every human being still gives and needs to be respected,” said Arnold.
“It needs a lot of patience, compassion and understanding,” said the pastor’s wife, Verena, 75, who sat beside Arnold for the interview. “Love — just a lot of love,” she said. Arnold gives his wife a lot of credit for helping with his writing over the years: “She was a big, big help — she read all my manuscripts and without her I could not have done it.”
“There’s an important difference between letting go and giving up,” said Johann Huleatt, Woodcrest’s media coordinator, who sat in on the interview. “That we let go of our will, so to speak, and let nature or God play out, but don’t give up. That’s the point of this book … Feel encouraged, carry on, don’t succumb to an attitude of ‘my life’s a failure and I just want to die.’”
The art of dying
The nation is approaching a new and uncertain era as the baby boomer generation hurtles toward old age. A generation whose ethos espoused eternal youth and did its level best to maintain it — with some success; decades ago anyone over 60 was considered pretty much over the hill but these days sexagenarians are not usually thought of as “old” — now is facing the reality that they, like their parents, grandparents and ancestors before them, won’t live forever. How can boomers use this book to help them through that, Arnold was asked.
“We have to joyfully accept that our younger years have gone by and we have to make the best out of what we have,” he said, stressing that service to others was the key to staying happy.
Also important for people of all ages, said Arnold, is to not isolate older people from the young. While the dispersing of extended families has been a lamentable trend of modern society, at the Bruderhof, special efforts are made to keep old and young together. The community’s children visit several local nursing homes as part of the community’s omnipresent outreach efforts.
“Young people, they’d better pay attention and start learning what it means to take care of an old person,” said Arnold. “Basically what you’re doing when you’re helping an old person is community service — paying back to society, isn’t it? If you want to educate a young person, have that person spend time with old people.”
“Too many people don’t take the time to listen,” the pastor added. “If you go to an old-age home … you see all these old people and they are keen, like we all are, that someone sits down and says, ‘Hey, tell me what you experienced in your lifetime. I want to learn from you.’ That has a healing effect, you see, that recognition, on the talker and the listener. Don’t you think so?”
Arnold is a Christian pastor from a long line of pastors — his grandfather, Eberhard Arnold, founded the Bruderhof in Germany in 1920 and his father, Johann Heinrich Arnold, was a pastor as well. So the book is clearly written from a faith-based perspective, but not everyone believes in God. How do people who don’t believe in a “next world” and who fully expect their consciousness to end when their lives end?
“Those people, especially, need the reaching out of a hand. In my introduction, I describe that we are all hiking on a trail towards a goal and we need to help one another. The more we help one another, the more it enables us to get to that goal. … This walk starts at our birth and ends at our death. … The value of our lives will be determined by how did I help my neighbor when he stumbled, when he was not able to continue. Did I reach out a hand and reassure that person that he was going to be OK?”
“We all understand love,” added Huleatt.
“I hope it starts a conversation,” said Arnold of his book as the interview wound down. “I hope it gets people to realize, ‘Hey, in order to survive, we need one another. Let’s stop living isolated lives … let’s help each other out!”
Free copies of the book are available by visiting www.richinyears.com up until the book’s Nov. 1 publication date.