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Waltzing Methuselah: Practical Steps to Paying for a Longer Life

Religious Education, Summer 1999, by Cram, Ronald H.

Elizabeth Midlarsky and Eva Kahana wrote in their classic book, Altruism in Later Life (Sage Publications, 1994), "Consistent with the societal emphasis placed on funding that addresses the problems and vulnerabilities of older adults, there has been a notable absence of research on productive, generative, and altruistic behaviors in late life" (231-32). This persuasive and stereotypical view of the older adult as problem-ridden, vulnerable, and developmentally stagnant invades denominational curriculum resources when least expected. More important, perhaps, are the many (and mostly unconscious) ways that these negative and stereotypical understandings of old age are accepted as normative by the old themselves in religious centers of worship.

The most direct consequence of this understanding of the older adult as vulnerable, stagnant, and problem-ridden is that the older adult is viewed as a passive recipient of care who lacks proactive and generative behavior. It is in contradistinction to such understandings of the older adult that Henry C. Simmons, director of the Center on Aging at Union Theological Seminary/Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and Craig MacBean, member of the Board of Directors of the National Council on the Aging, offer this practical book on financial planning for older adults.

A practical book on financial planning for older adults? What does such a book have to do with religious education? Drawing their understanding of older-adult development from James C. Fisher, Simmons and MacBean set out to educate for the first time, or perhaps to re-educate, older adults about the following transitions:

extended middle age

ready or not-a short, intense period of loss requiring a new understanding of the self and others, resulting from a change in one's own physical well-being or the death of a spouse

the new adaptation to the traumatic change of the previous stage

like it or not-a move to dependence triggered by loss of health or mobility

the rest of life, often lasting many years

dying-life's last sacred act

This listing provides an important pedagogical and research model for the religious educator. Attending each of these transitional stages or movements are physical and financial realities, suggesting that the educator pay overt attention to transitions after extended middle age-something virtually nonexistent in our field. Like it or not, religious education has opted to focus on the possibilities of child education or youth ministry far more than the possibilities of old age. The second lesson for the educator is to take seriously the relationship between material need and human development, between body and spirit. Victor R. Fuchs was probably the last of a handful of researchers to connect the tWo,4 but religious educators typically have been reluctant to go beyond critique of economic systems. The critique of dominant economic forms and attendant ideological presuppositions is a valuable enterprise, but, like it or not, persons in capitalist systems have both material and religious needs that are negotiated and satisfied.

Add to this lacuna a general contemporary lack of attention to the relationship between ritual and life transitions,' and the contribution by Simmons and MacBean becomes all the more instructive to our field! The book, constrained by no particular religious perspective, is earthy in its spirituality. Discussions of retirement planning, HR10 plans, life insurance policies, and long-term-care insurance are woven into the mystery of being and becoming, into the transitions and social rituals that attend religious life. Peter Gilmour has written that "outward signs of God's grace are sacraments, and these signs of God's grace may be and indeed are most commonly found in the ordinary experiences of human beings."', In the experiences of the elderly, in physical and financial transition and the attending narrative and ritual, are clues for religious education for a new millennium.

1 See Ronald Cram, "Images of Aging in Selected Religious Education Curriculum Materials," Resources in Education, November 1990, ED 319 890, CE 054 505.

2 See Rick Baggett, "Older Adults: How They Listen and Respond to the Biblical Narratives, Especially the Parables Taught by Jesus, for Making Meaning in Their Lives," D. Min. thesis, Columbia Theological Seminary, 1999.

3 James C. Fisher, "A Framework for Describing Developmental Change among Older Adults," Adult Education Quarterly (winter 1993).

4 In How We Live: An Economic Perspective on Americans from Birth to Death (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).

5 Cantor Helen Leneman's Bar/Bat Mitzvah Basics: A Practical Family Guide to Coming of Age Together (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 1996) and Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), are two notable exceptions.

6 Peter Gilmour, The Wisdom of Memoir: Reading and Writing Life's Sacred Texts (Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary's Press, 1997),71.

Ronald H. Cram is Associate Professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia

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