Trusting Faith, Learning Lessons In Golden Years

Tell Me More concludes its series about the end of life by revisiting Washington D.C.-based seniors Gerry Elliott, Krishna Roy and Rev. Rhoda Nixon. They discuss how their diverse religions — from Hinduism to Christianity and Unitarianism — have guided them through difficulties of aging and have informed their understandings of aging.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.

All week, TELL ME MORE has been exploring how families in our country are grappling with aging. We've been talking about financial security, health, caregiving. Today, we want to talk about faith. Now, we realize that these may be difficult conversations to have and to hear, but we felt that they could also help us prepare for the challenges that we will all face if we are lucky enough to age.

We wanted to hear what kinds of conversations our nation's seniors are having as they consider some of the challenges and triumphs of getting older. Earlier this week, I sat down with a small, diverse group of seniors from Ingleside at Rock Creek. That's a retirement community here in our nation's capital. We talked about some of the lessons they've learned in their lifetimes.

Today, we wanted to talk about how their diverse faith perspectives have influenced and informed their outlook and the decisions they've made as they have gotten older.

Gerry Elliott is 80. He's lived in Washington, DC since he and his wife moved from the Midwest in the 1960s. He's a retired congressional aide, and they've lived in this retirement community for four years.

The Reverend Rhoda Nixon is 86. She's an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. She's currently working on writing her memoir. She's a proud grandmother.

Krishna Roy is 83. She's been living at Ingleside for six years. She's worn many hats in her life. She's worked for the Indian government, the United Nations and a community-based health care clinic, to name a few.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

RHODA NIXON: Thank you.

GERRY ELLIOTT: Thank you.

KRISHNA ROY: Thank you.

MARTIN: I just wanted to start with you, Reverend Nixon, because, as we mentioned, you're an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, and you've accompanied many people through many of their life passages. What does your faith tradition and perspective tell you about this phase of your life?

NIXON: I think that whenever I meet any kind of crisis or as I'm thinking about which way I want to go, I'm always drawing on my faith to direct me. When I got sick, I really wondered why I was having this particular breakdown at this particular time. I'd certainly had been taking care of my husband, and had worn myself out. However, I felt that was my role as a wife.

And I listen to Charles Stanley on Sundays, and I've found that he's been very helpful to me, because he really said that sometimes you need to step back and really look at where you are. And maybe you need to think in terms of taking a different direction, and maybe you need a deeper faith experience at that time. And I think that's where I really was.

So I use that period of time that I was indoors and really could not go out to really have a deeper experience with God and to think about my life at that point. And that's when I got the idea that I would really write the story of my life.

MARTIN: That's great. What a great idea.

NIXON: And I'm hoping my book title will be "He Called Me by Name." I feel that, not only was I called to be a minister, but I was called now to write the book about my ministry.

MARTIN: Oh, I look forward to hearing it. I hope you'll keep us in mind.

NIXON: I certainly want to.

MARTIN: Okay. Mr. Elliott, what about you? Do I have it right that you consider yourself more an agnostic or - I don't know how to describe it. Would agnostic, atheist or...

ELLIOTT: It is difficult to describe, and this is a difficult segment for me, because I respect and understand people of faith. It's simply a fact that I'm not one of them.

MARTIN: But that's okay, because we're not judging you. We're just interested in what framework, or philosophical framework you call upon to give meaning to your life, or to understand this stage of your life. It could just be that it's a biological reality that we're going to age, if we're lucky. I don't - whatever it's - there's no right answers. That's what I'm saying.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. That probably comes as close as anything to describing it. I mean, our main concern - my wife and I - is that we come to the end of this veil of tears, or whatever you want to describe it as, in a way that respects the society in which we've profited from, that entails a minimum amount of pain and suffering to both us and the people who love and honor us. And I think it's the end of life that is our major concern. And thinking about this, knowing that we'd be here talking about this, it's just become clear to me there are no easy answers.

The end of life comes in 57 varieties and more, and I personally have witnessed several of them, and each one has been different. And all you can do is talk about these things while you still have the ability to think about it and verbalize.

The key thing, I think, is to talk to people who survive you, and it's not easy. Because I'm sure if you had my wife here, she would say, well, since you think that, why don't you talk to me about it? So it's not easily done, but it's very, very important.

MARTIN: Krishna, what about you? I understand that you were raised Hindu, but you now consider yourself Unitarian.

ROY: Yes.

MARTIN: What does your faith experience tell you about the meaning of this stage of your life?

ROY: I was born and raised for the first 29 years of my life a Hindu, in a family which depended on faith. And so it became almost a habit. And as you grow with that kind of an environment, it kind of becomes a part of you. And so I always grew up with a faith, but fortunately - at least the way it was practiced in my family - was our faith, Hinduism, which was the basis of our faith, means respecting all other religions, tolerance and respect. And that has helped me all my life. Many times, Hinduism is criticized as accepting everything, but I think it goes way beyond it.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to - I'm glad you brought that up, because that was actually going to be one of my questions, is that - although people understand the comfort that many people of faith get from their religion, there are others who feel that sometimes, it makes people fatalistic and accept too much, and instead of fighting back, that they just resign themselves to the inevitable, because that's what they feel their faith tradition teaches them to do. And I'm just curious about your perspective on that.

ROY: You know, there is a lot of that in India. You accept much more easily what's going on in your life than fight against it, although that is coming on now, and slowly, you can see it. But it becomes a little more tolerable that you accept what's around you, your environment and your family situation, and so forth.

MARTIN: Reverend Nixon, you were shaking your head no when I said that there are those who feel that a faith tradition, while it can offer, you know, comfort and joy, makes people passive and fatalistic. And I just wanted to ask your perspective on that.

NIXON: I guess I felt a little differently because in my counseling with people and my pastoral counseling, I try to assess what are the possibilities for them coping with whatever's happening with them. And we always also have a resource base of places people can go for various things. So I try to bring - when people are discouraged and feel there's no hope or they're in a situation that they feel there are no answers, to really, first of all, say that God wants them to use themselves to the very best ability that they have. And maybe there are some things that still can be done for them and with them.

So that's where I've been, to really give them some hope and feel that our faith encourages us to have hope as long as we possibly can.

MARTIN: Have you ever felt your faith tested by - you know, you've had some challenges over the course of the year. I mean, you lost your husband. He had some health difficulties. You had health difficulties, lasting quite some time. Did you ever find your faith tested by this?

NIXON: I feel it was a test. I feel that we're constantly tested when certain things come up. How strong will we be? How much will we really lean on our faith to take us through that particular thing? And I have found myself growing in my faith, because I felt God wouldn't put me in this situation if it wasn't that I was supposed to learn some important lesson. And on the basis of that, I feel that I must cope now with the situation and make the very best of it and see what I was supposed to do with it.

MARTIN: Gerry, what about you? Have you found your philosophical framework, whatever it is, tested in any way? And what do you draw upon as you enter this stage of your life to decide whether your life had meaning?

ELLIOTT: Well, I think, first thing, I've not been tested. I'm sort of, in a sense, an anti-Job. I mean, I've never been tested, and we've enjoyed our life. If it ends tomorrow, that would not bother me in the least, because I'm satisfied. You know, I'm sort of speechless on this, because I feel pretty strongly about what I think, but I haven't been tested. So who knows? But I'm not asking for the test anytime soon.

MARTIN: I hear you. Well, if someone were to ask you what is the meaning of life, what have you come up with?

ELLIOTT: To be a good husband, to be a good citizen of the United States, to be a good citizen of the world. That's all I can do, and I think I have. I guess that's it, really.

MARTIN: Reverend Nixon, a final thought about people who are in this stage of life or beginning this stage of life or caring for people at this stage of life, about what your faith teaches you about why we are here.

NIXON: I think that I'm really trying to see why I'm here at this point and how I'm supposed to use this particular time, because I've certainly had the Job life situation, because I've had over 13 surgeries and I've had cancer and I've had heart problems and I've had - my last surgery was 11-and-a-half hours on my stomach. So coming out of that kind of experience, I'm saying, why was I left here, and what am I supposed to do with it?

So I'm really waiting to have that unfold for me. So I'm excited right now about this last part of my life, because I can now - I'm free now to do these things that I could not do before.

MARTIN: Krishna, a final thought from you.

ROY: I feel that I have been tested several times, and I feel that the kind of faith that I grew up with helped me to absolutely be sure and taught me that hope, love, they're the most important aspects of my life. And that has really lifted me and drove me through my life to keep on going. And through all those, one could be very bitter. One could fight, which I did. But every time, I did not go through a stage where I made bitter enemies or I revolted to a certain extent that I was totally thrown out. So I think what I grew up with, what I was born and grew up with, has helped me all through life, in spite of whatever other religions thought of that religion. The tolerance, the patience, the peace, hope, love, faith - these have been very, very important in my life.

MARTIN: Krishna Roy is the mother of two adult children. She's a trained economist and she stays active, walking up to nine miles a day.

Gerry Elliott is a retired congressional aide and a lifelong Packers fan and, as he told us, dedicated to being a good husband, a good citizen of the country and the world.

The Reverend Rhoda Nixon is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, a proud grandmother, and she's working on a memoir.

And they were all kind enough to join us from their home in Washington, DC. They all live at Ingleside at Rock Creek. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

ROY: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

NIXON: Thank you.

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