An interview with Margaret Zook
“Growing old is not for sissies!” We’ve heard that phrase – maybe even declared it ourselves. Often we think of aging as a season that comes with challenges; it can also bring opportunities to explore, find new ways to use the gifts God has given to each of us, and continue growing into the person God always intended us to become. It can also bring a unique awareness of the meaning and purpose of our faith and an increased ability to connect with God. It brings a time of learning to journey inward to our sacred centers where God is with us in the most intimate way.
In the world of retirement communities, we have a long history of providing high quality physical care to those in the omega (the last letter of the Greek alphabet) season of the aging journey. There’s been a focus on cures, managing, and controlling – “fixes” delivered through tools that health care and medicine can provide. Later we learned to also emphasize wellness, nutrition, and continuous learning. We’ve built fitness and aquatic centers, added dieticians to our staff, and have growing libraries. But more recently, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of spirituality to the well-being of seniors. We are learning how to integrate spirituality into the services we provide and have a deeper understanding of how that creates meaning and purpose in the lives of older adults.
Living Branches has taken intentional steps to place a priority emphasis on spirituality – both for our residents, the seniors that are part of congregations and churches to which we are connected, and the older adults that live in the community around us. Recently, I visited with Margaret Zook, Director of Church and Community Relations at Living Branches. Her passion for understanding that aging is a spiritual journey was quickly apparent. “One of the biggest yearnings I hear from people that are aging is a need to belong,” shared Margaret. “A desire to belong to something greater than ourselves grows as we become older.”
One of Margaret’s key roles is to partner with churches to provide resources that will help congregations develop a better understanding of spirituality and aging. “Even in our churches, it is often assumed that one’s faith journey will continue to develop as they age without too much communication about it. Often seniors feel de-valued as many churches focus on growing the congregation in numbers and so the emphasis is on youth, young families, and keeping up with technology. We have much to learn about creating atmospheres where seniors can also remain connected and use their spiritual gifts,” shared Margaret.
“Spirituality is belonging in a relationship with a God and belonging to a community of faith where we practice that belonging. Older church members have a more difficult sense of where they belong. Life as a young person in a church was a role; we had jobs in the church—Sunday school teacher, elder, pastor, worship team. As we get older the jobs in church are no longer what we do, so defining our belonging in our community of faith becomes more difficult,” explains Margaret. “I believe defining that role for older church members will become more and more important as baby boomers live longer. The boomers will explore their spirituality just as they explored other aspects of their lives. We want to help congregations think about that exploration.”
Wisdom with Age
It’s been said that “because the world is so desperately in need of wisdom, God created elders.”
There is a wisdom that only comes with aging. “We want to help churches understand that the wisdom of the seniors in their congregations is wisdom that will help us in the future. It needs to be asked for, received, and honored,” stated Margaret. “At Living Branches, we are focused on developing specific knowledge about how to seek out the wisdom, generosity, and mentoring gifts of our senior adults.”
In the communities of Living Branches, there is a strong connectedness to our spiritual roots and an honoring of practices that encourage spiritual growth. This creates a culture that cannot be manufactured or produced—because it comes out of the lives of people. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul equates our faith journey to running a race. No matter what stage of the race we each find ourselves, we all have a desire to finish well. Here at Living Branches we run the race together—in community, with perseverance, and with purpose and joy. And we run the race with confidence, believing the profound truth that spiritual growth can be nurtured through all seasons of life…even in, and perhaps especially in, the omega season. And so we say with Apostle Paul, “…I am reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me…I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” (Philippians 3:12-14, The Message)