Anybody who is in their last year of an academic program has probably been afflicted by senioritis: an inflammation of the spirit that causes itching, irritation and restlessness among people about to graduate. They bristle at “mindless” work they accepted more easily in their freshman year and seek ways to avoid the tasks that will allow them to escape the very place they want so desperately to leave.
I ran into a different kind of “senioritis” when I began overseeing the seniors group at my church. The group leaders were getting older and were looking for help in recruiting new leaders, and the group had dwindled in number due to the natural attrition of death or people moving away.
Part of my vocation is to facilitate the recruitment and training of church leaders, so I immediately set out to recruit new leaders for our seniors ministry. I spoke to numerous vibrant, active members in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, and I got a nearly universal answer: “I’m not a senior.” This was sometimes followed by, “I’m very active in a variety of ways” (which is exactly the same leadership quality I saw in them) or “I may be retired, but I’m not old.” Another reaction was, “I participate in activities with people from a variety of ages.”
Several people suggested that I would have more success recruiting members and leaders if I renamed the “Senior Saints” group to something without the word “senior” in it. So I started researching other terms for “senior,” and I discovered that the reaction people were having was a common trend: the word “senior” is becoming increasingly problematic to identify programs associated with older adults. (That doesn’t mean the term is gone. Take, for example, in my same city, the Pasadena Senior Center, a model for offering various levels of community, enrichment, advocacy, and care for older adults.)
This discomfort with the term “senior” coincides with what I read in an issue of Yale Divinity School’s magazine Spectrum, which devoted the entire issue to social, ethical and theological considerations of aging and death. One professor of liturgical studies, who writes on death and dying, notes that Americans are particularly reluctant to think about aging and death. (She is from Germany and seems more comfortable with it.) She had a bookcase built in the shape of a coffin for her office and placed it across from her desk so that she can thoughtfully contemplate her mortality, eternal life, etc. as she works.
I didn’t have time for theological musing or medieval memento mori because I had a group of older adults who wanted to resume gathering for lunch, conversation, prayer, interesting talks and events, etc. I ran some other names past a few members. Sages? Bolder, Older, Wiser? Wise Ones? But when we gathered again in the fall and I asked for feedback from the entire group, people wanted to stick with “Senior Saints.” One member said, “We are old.”
These older people have particular issues and joys related to their life stage, just as teenagers, young adults, and parents have issues and joys related to their life stages. They are amazingly wise, honest, altruistic, spiritually and emotionally autonomous, adept at recognizing and accepting the complexity of situations, generous, and aware that they are still vital and growing in many ways. Frankly, I find them fun to hang out with.
In fact, when I looked up research on seniors, I discovered that the term “senior” sometimes refers to people over 50–which would explain why the local cemetery just sent me, at age 51, an advertisement for burials and cremations.
I suddenly feel itchy, irritated, and anxious to leave. It must be senioritis.