The Art of Aging
BY TIFFANY MUSICK MATTHEWS
“Someday our life’s journey will be over. In a sense we all are nearing home. As we do so, I pray that you and I may not only learn what it means to grow older but, with God’s help, also learn to grow older with grace and find the guidance needed to finish well.” – Billy Graham, Nearing Home
As I walk into the lobby of the beautiful White Sands senior living community, a man—the wrong man, I’m certain—quickly stands to greet me. If I had to venture a guess, I would say he is probably in his early 80s, which rules him out as the 93-year old chaplain I’m supposed to be meeting. “Hi. I’m Jim,” he says, to my surprise. The man before me, to put it plainly, confounds my preconceived idea of someone approaching centenarian status. It’s not because he is clearly mobile, articulate, and aware; it’s more than that. He is brimming with a certain enthusiasm, an eagerness to start the day, an energy that I hadn’t quite expected. He’s humble, too, encouraging me to use his first name despite all he’s accomplished. Knowing what I do about the Rev. Dr. Jim Jackson (B.A. 41, M.A. 43) already, I guess I should have expected nothing less.
Jim’s chaplaincy is only the latest in a long line of service. After graduating from Pasadena College with a bachelor’s in philosophy and English literature and a master’s in religion, Jim went on to serve in the Church of the Nazarene as an associate pastor, senior pastor, and ordained church elder. He later returned to PLNU, where he took on roles as professor for 44 years and dean of students for 18 years, earning another master’s and his doctorate in speech communication from USC along the way. In addition, he has served in volunteer staff positions for the Church of the Nazarene, including minister of visitation and Sunday school teacher, and held one other position as chaplain at Wesley Palms senior living community prior to White Sands.
His list of achievements is impressive to say the least, but what sets apart this particular job is the fact that he took the position at 91. Now at 93, when others might choose to relax or check out from a life of responsibility to others, Jim continues to serve. As I snap back to reality and look at the man before me—Jim, with his wispy white hair, friendly smile, and gentle eyes that sit behind wire-framed glasses—I offer a handshake and quick introduction.
“Well, Tiffany,” he says. “Are you ready to get started?”
A Day in the Life of Jim
Every morning, Jim rises at 5 a.m. He heads out into the cool, salty air and walks two miles, taking in the beauty of the La Jolla landscape. When he returns to his room, what he calls his “senior dorm,” he showers and dresses before beginning his daily devotional. There, in the quiet of his living room and the comfort of his favorite lounge chair, he prays. He prays for the health and happiness of his family— those in his bloodline and the new family he has found in the people who surround him daily—and prays most specifically that he would be a vessel through which God’s grace and love would be shown to his fellow residents.
Jim leaves his room and stops by the clinic to inquire about any residents who have been taken to the hospital— this information will likely shape the rest of his day, perhaps even his week. From there, he continues down the corridor, descends the staircase and enters the chapel. On this particular morning, while waiting for morning prayer to begin, he takes a seat at the piano and allows his fingers to begin their dance across the keys. When Eleanor Mae, known by everyone as E. Mae, promptly arrives at 7:45, he pulls two chairs together and takes a seat. This morning, E. Mae is the only other resident in attendance, but neither she nor Jim is discouraged by this reality as they begin their beloved morning ritual.
In unison, they read a passage from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. This morning’s verses are found in 1 Kings and Matthew. They read a selection from a book on world missions—today’s featured location is Hong Kong—and then enter into a time of intercessory prayer for the facility, the San Diego community, and the world.
After dismissal, Jim proceeds to the dining hall for breakfast, which can’t begin without saying a round of “hellos” and “good mornings” to the residents that have beaten him to the feast. He grabs his usual—a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, a carton of skim milk and a glass of orange juice—and turns his attention to finding a seat. Scanning the tables, each decorated with white linens, proper place settings, and a fresh-brewed pot of coffee that greets each resident as they sit, Jim determines a seat by Jennifer, who occupies a single setting at her table for four.
As sure as he takes his seat, Jim and Jennifer begin chattering as though lifelong friends picking up where they last left off. They discuss the weather, new happenings in the community, yesterday’s memorial service, and then the conversation takes a turn. Jennifer begins to speak of the journey that brought her from apartheid-worn South Africa to this beachfront San Diego community. As she talks, Jim listens intently, interjecting praise for her unwavering spirit of optimism—a trait he admires and urges her never to lose.
Draining the last of his milk, he stands, thanks Jennifer for her company, and exits the dining hall, focused on transitioning to the next part of the day: his rounds. He begins in the skilled nursing unit located in a building just across the lawn. He stops on his way over to look at the ocean, just a stone’s throw from where he stands. He admires the water, the surfers, the good fortune of living in such an enviable location. But his pause is short-lived, and he continues on to see those who need the friendly face of their chaplain.
As Jim makes his way down the hall, he peeks into open doors to see which residents are available for conversation. Before he enters each room, he seems to check his demeanor, taking in the tone of the room, considering the energy and attitude of the awaiting resident. At some rooms, no adjustment is necessary. He pops in with a bubbling enthusiasm, a smile, asking about their morning, their breakfast, their health, and the residents respond with matched spirits. With other rooms, the ones of those experiencing hardship, Jim is more cautious with his entrance, more reserved in his approach.
As he leaves one room, he is met in the hallway by Betty, who sits in a wheelchair with a newspaper sprawled across her lap. As though expecting him, she smiles and utters a quick, “I don’t get today’s. Can you explain it to me?” Jim leans down, taking a closer look at the political cartoon of the day, considering the illustration and caption, and then leans back up. Today’s cartoon is about the royal baby, he explains. After additional explanation as to which royals in particular are expecting, Betty nods in comprehension and thanks Jim for the clarification.
The rest of the morning is spent much like this, visiting his friends, or rather, any resident who is up for company. After skilled nursing comes the assisted living wing and then the dementia wing. Though some White Sands staff members opt for “Reverend,” most residents know him simply as Jim, no title despite years of schooling and service. This is the way he prefers it, no pretense, and he can’t help but smile as calls of “Hey Jim!” are offered throughout the facility. After he feels satisfied with his rounds, he retreats to his office, where he would normally read or prepare his message for the upcoming Vespers service. But today, he has reserved this time for me.
After only a brief time with Jim, a few things are certain: His energy is infectious and his dedication to the residents of the White Sands senior living community is the mark of a man humbled to fulfill his ongoing calling. Jim’s only telltale sign of his age is his wisdom, a trait revealed behind his kind eyes and never ceasing smile. His mind, still sharp and engaged, serves as a filing cabinet from which he can recollect each resident’s name, not to mention their religious beliefs, health concerns, likes, dislikes, family situation, and forces of habit. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than Jim’s memory is his heart to communicate God’s love.
As I sit in his office and inquire about his ability to age so well, so gracefully, he smiles as 93 years of memories come flooding back. He begins to reminisce, providing brief glimpses into his past, insights into the present, hopes for the future, and lessons learned that, in all honesty, transcend age or ailment, ringing true for everyone—or at least those who find themselves, from time to time, getting older.
Aging with Purpose and Faith
Planted in the house of the Lord, [the righteous] will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green…” (Psalm 92: 13-14)
“My mission is to let people know the love of God is with them,” he says.
This singular purpose has manifested in a number of different ways. As a professor and dean of students at PLNU, his purpose was to reach out to students daily, helping them learn and adjust to college life. As a pastor and chaplain, his focus was and is encouraging those around him and reassuring them of God’s love and grace.
But for a time, Jim recalls, these roles were set aside and his purpose was narrowed in focus to helping one person. In 2007, Jim’s wife of 63 years fell ill and Jim became her primary caregiver. Staying at home with Alice, he tended to her needs, made sure she had the medical attention she required, and cherished the precious time they had left together. In 2008, after Alice passed and his time as caregiver came to an end, he was left with a plaguing question: What do I do now?
Realizing a need for purpose and community, he began to reacquaint himself with activities and communities that had taken a back seat. He began to volunteer at his church, help with memorial services, plan luncheons, make hospital calls, and, when possible, feed his passion for traveling. And this—his insistence on doing rather than just being—is what not only helped him through his period of grief, but continues to benefit him today.
Jim reflects on his interaction with Betty, a small but purposeful daily encounter. Betty, Jim explains, has no family, nor does she have a lot of visitors. So Jim has adopted her as family. Though their conversations are usually brief and limited to the topic of deciphering cartoon implications, they are dependable. They are a point of consistency for both of them, a sure, trusted exchange.
This interaction, shrouded in modesty, is the essence of his ministry—a willingness to reach out. His effort to stay involved in the lives of those around him, to foster a sense of community for residents whose other relationships have been severed, to encourage them to stay active in the hopes that doors to new friendships will be opened—these are Jim’s contributions, not just to White Sands, but to the Kingdom.
Jim’s fervent belief in the power of community and encouragement is reflective of Scripture, such as Hebrews 10:24-25, where the author writes, “And let us consider how we may spur one another toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
When asked what he thinks of his purpose, now 93 years into life, Jim responds with a quote by George Bernard Shaw: “This is the true joy in life—being used for a purpose recognized by your self as a mighty one, being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a fevered selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not make you happy.”
“This is true for me,” he says. “I don’t want to end up a selfish clod.”
But finding purpose, he attests, is often not so difficult to achieve: “Look at what I do here. Much of my ministry is just saying ‘hi.’ It’s not a big, demanding thing, but it’s just being willing to do it. Sometimes we think it has to be elaborate, but often it’s just very simple.”
And while his daily routine may seem simple, Jim’s decision to become chaplain at White Sands didn’t come without difficulty. At first, the thought of moving out of his home of 37 years and into a senior living community seemed daunting, a compromise of the independence he so cherished. But eventually, Jim’s willingness to serve and his heart for the residents prevailed. Now, two years later, Jim shrugs off the return to “dorm life” as a small sacrifice to keep his ministry.
“This is evidently where I’m supposed to be, and it’s satisfying,” says Jim.
Again, Jim’s sentiments seem to fall naturally in line with the Word he so values—a prime example being found in the declaration of Ecclesiastes 3:12-13: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”
Jim is a man of faith, that much is clear. His faith has guided him as he has changed careers, raised a family, traveled the world, experienced grief, and now settled into his role as chaplain. When it comes to God’s Word or love or grace, Jim speaks with confidence, his voice taking on a tone of conviction and absolution. And though uncertain what the future holds, Jim is sure about his faith and takes comfort in knowing that at least that part of him will always remain secure and familiar.
But Jim is also the first to say that, unfortunately, faith doesn’t ensure we make it through life unscathed. The presence of faith never suggests the absence of suffering. Rather, those with faith are assured through Scripture that trials will inevitably come. This, Jim says, is where shallow faith may fail, but strong faith holds true. Being an active member of the body of Christ rather than just attending church, hiding God’s Word in your heart rather than perusing through Scripture, fervently seeking God’s will in all circumstances rather than praying only in times of need—these efforts add up and, over time, allow us to mature in our faith and cling to it in times of trouble. It is because of a firm foundation in Christ that we are able to find peace and rest assured in the stability of an unchanging God—despite what this life may bring.
My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:26)
For Jim, a purpose-filled, faithful life means we will always have value, never becoming just a burden, but continually blessing those around us. This idea becomes vividly illustrated—a living, breathing reality—when he introduces me to Helen. During my first visit to White Sands, Jim brings me into Helen’s room on the dementia floor. Though there are only nine apartments here, Helen’s condition is advanced enough that she can no longer find her room unassisted. She sits with a friend who tries to explain who Jim and I are and why we are here. Through labored breathing, and with a muddled Scottish accent, she proceeds to express incredible gratitude and joy in our visit.
As we talk, the severity of her condition becomes increasingly evident. Undeterred, Jim encourages Helen and reassures her of God’s love and presence in her life. Then her friend, sitting close by with an iPod, begins playing an instrumental version of Amazing Grace. And something amazing happens. Helen, who can’t find her own room, serenades us in every verse of her favorite song, the words springing to mind clearly, as second nature as the act of forming words themselves. After finishing with a heartfelt “and grace will lead me home,” we thank her for the lovely song and turn to leave, while a quiet utterance of “Who was that?” trails behind us.
“Helen is not worthless,” Jim observes later, and I concur. She has ministered to my heart with what she has left—her voice and such a pure reminder of the power of the Gospel to transcend all else.
A few weeks later, Jim informs me of Helen’s death only a day before my return. Sad to know she has passed, but happy for her physical and mental restoration, I reflect on our one and only encounter. Helen wasn’t able to remember who I was by the end of her song. But I, assuredly, will never forget her—her smile, her sweet spirit, and her confidence that, despite the chaos and uncertainty of this life, grace would indeed lead her home.