My church recently celebrated the nonagenarians within the congregation—lovingly deemed the VIPs, Very Inspiring Persons—and I was amazed to learn that we have twenty members ninety years old and above! They were each asked to stand while one of the ministers shared brief excerpts from their life stories. I recognized several of them from their involvements around the church, and had no idea that they had reached the esteemed status of nonagenarian. One greets people at the door each week with a warm smile and handshake. Another diligently writes birthday cards to everyone in the church community. Others are no longer able to attend worship each week, but put in extra effort with the assistance of family and church staff to be present that day. They are also visited routinely by our ministers and continue to feel active in the church community. A few of the stories shared that morning were truly remarkable – one woman celebrated her 90th birthday by going skydiving! A couple proudly stood up together and received an extra round of applause because they had recently gotten married at age 93.
These are glimpses of vitality in the midst of community. In the field of palliative care we take it as one of our supreme goals to help people live well, even in the face of limitations. Surely any nonagenarian will acknowledge various forms of limitation. If we’re honest about it, we all gain and lose capacities and abilities throughout our lives, although illness can force us to grapple with this fact more starkly than “routine” aging. And yet this group is, on the whole, clearly still living well—not afraid to change or try new things or find ways to keep participating in the things that bring them meaning, even if modified or with the help of others. By taking a moment to celebrate this reality, we turned our attention and respect to a demographic that sometimes gets overlooked, and we also felt a bit of the glow of communal flourishing.
I wonder how we can celebrate life lived well in other forms of intergenerational community. Certainly families are natural arenas for ritualizing birthdays and milestones. Perhaps healthcare settings also provide rich opportunities for celebration. When I was integrated within an inpatient palliative care service we cheered for our patients and one another when we experienced “palliative care victories.” One “victory” that comes to mind was advocating for a patient to leave the hospital and return to his beloved cabin in Montana for the time he had left, even though it was considered an unstable discharge. In my current position on the bone marrow transplant unit, we have a “birthday party” on the day that patients get their transplanted cells—a marker of transformation and new life. These moments in time always have a larger context, which inevitably will include loss and grief along with celebration. We need the celebration, though, don’t we?
Rev. Rachel Chang (formerly Revelle) recently got married, a milestone celebration in her own life! Her husband is a practicing cardiologist, which informs her understanding of the art of medicine and the complex matters of the human heart.