Many have heard the popular adage “with age comes wisdom.” It rings true for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living faithfully into their 70s, 80s and 90s. While change is a constant in life and living longer increases experiences of loss, older Church members find comfort as they strive to connect deeper with their families and serve their neighbors and loved ones. They find out there is still room to create, to inspire, to learn and to grow.
This episode of the Church News podcast features Norman C. Hill, former mission president in the Ghana Accra West and Sierra Leone Freetown missions. He is an affiliate associate professor at BYU’s Ballard Center for Social Impact. Today he shares “keys to growing older without getting old” while leaning on gospel principles of faith, service and compassion.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question, “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast and this is what I know now.”
“With age comes wisdom” is an adage old and true. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, living faithfully into their 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond, are indeed discovering silver-linings. While changes are ever constant in life and living longer increases experiences of loss, older Church members find comfort as they strive to connect deeper with their families, serve their neighbors and loved ones, and practice and worship to the best of their ability. They find out that there’s still room to create, to inspire, to learn and to grow.
Today on the Church News podcast we are joined by Norman C. Hill, a former mission president in the Ghana Accra West Mission and the Sierra Leone Freetown Mission. He understands some of the unpredictable challenges that come with changes in life, as his wife, Raylene B. Hill, passed away from complications following a routine medical procedure while the couple served their mission. Upon Brother Hill’s release, he found himself unexpectedly alone, and with the support of his children decided to re-enter the workforce. He found a part-time career working as an affiliate associate professor at BYU Ballard Center for Social Impact. Now married to the grandmother of one of his own return missionaries, Stephanie Hill, he dedicates his time advising students as well as researching individuals around his own age. In the process, Brother Hill has uncovered several “keys to growing older without getting old” while leaning on gospel principles of faith, service and compassion. Brother Hill, we’re so glad to have you on the Church News podcast today.
Norman C. Hill: It’s such a pleasure to be here. I’m really looking forward to our discussion.
Sarah Jane Weaver: All of our readers got that brief introduction about you. But I’m hoping you’ll lean in and tell us a little more about you, and what actually led you to start thinking about this important subject.
Norman C. Hill: I grew up in Utah in a small farm town, but lived most of my life in Houston, Texas, New Orleans, Louisiana, or in West Africa. Before our mission call, I traveled internationally quite a bit. While traveling, I saw the changes that occurred with many different people who had retired and in retirement sometimes struggled with a new definition of themselves. And that was true whether someone had a working career, or whether or not they were at home and had been a housewife, a mother, and children had left the nest, and they were coming to terms with being empty nesters. All of that caused me to look at my own situation, as well as others, and try to look for ways to be helpful.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And because change is inevitable in life, we often experience different types of change as we grow older. In your case, you lost your wife. Can you talk about her and about how that experience impacted what you would do going forward?
Norman C. Hill: My wife passing away was one of the more difficult experiences in my life. Never lost faith. I had a good friend who said, “Does this make you want to be like the Job, to ‘curse God and die’?”
And I said, “Of course not. That would be the worst thing in the world. It is my faith that keeps me going during this period of grief and mourning.”
During that time, my children rallied around me as well. And helped me see that despite changes that were unalterable, that nonetheless, there was still a hope and prospect in the future. I’ve appreciated Elder Uchtdorf’s talk about the “great power of hope,” and have reread it many different times. We sometimes skip over hope when we talk about faith, hope and charity, as if hope and faith are the same. And they’re very different; faith in Christ helps us see His inevitable and unalterable power to calm our heart, but is the hope of resurrection, the hope, as Paul said, “If we have hope in this life only, we are of all men most miserable”. It is that hope that God’s promises will all be fulfilled, that I think oftentimes keeps us going.
Sarah Jane Weaver: As you think about aging and this whole time of life for so many members of the Church, you have your own experiences to draw from. But you’ve also talked to other people and learned something from them. Tell us how you have come to sort of study this and gather data about this?
Norman C. Hill: I’ve done it in two different ways. One is a very academic way, creating a survey and administering it. So here in St. George, a year ago, I worked with a committee, designed a health and wellness survey, and we administered it to 2,300 people. We opened it up to everyone in Washington County, but about 2,300 people replied, and analyzing that data has given me great insights.
In addition, I’ve conducted a large number of interviews with people who are over age 60 and have asked them about their own experiences: What’s helped? What’s got in the way? Whether it’s physical, it’s spiritual, it’s cognitive? You know, sometimes we have this view, that older age is a period of decline, and that we have even heard people say, “Yeah, I’ve gotten put out in the pasture!” as if all of their best years are behind them.
Actually, several of the Brethren have addressed that in general conference over the years and have tried to explode this myth that with age comes decline. Elder Boyd K. Packer suggested a conference address, if i may quote him, quote, “There is so much to do and so much to be. Do not withdraw into retirement from life, into amusement. That, for some, would be useless, even selfish.” End quote.
I like the phrase that President Spencer W. Kimball often used, where someone asked him, “Gee, as you’re growing older, are you slowing down?” And he said, “No, I would much rather wear out than rust out.” And it’s that approach of looking to the future that I think changes our perspective, turns us in a different way, you reframes, if you will, what growing older is about. I like to say it’s growing older without getting old as we look for those silver linings.
As far back as 1974, Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone in fact used a similar notion by saying we need to stop all the negative connotations of using the word “old” and replace it with “living longer.” Those, for me, are important perspectives and remind us that, even as we age, “There’s much to do, and much to be” as Elder Packer said.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, I love, my favorite quote from a prophet on age, was when President Gordon B. Hinckley was in an interview with Mike Wallace. And at this point, President Hinckley was 85 years old. And Mike Wallace asked him about the Church being run by and he used the phrase, quote, “old men,” and President Hinckley said, “Isn’t it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment, who isn’t blown about by every wind of doctrine?” And then, you know, Mike Wallace says, “Well great, absolutely, as long as he’s not dotty.” and President Hinckley just quipped, “Thank you for the compliment.” You know, it was this delightful exchange that actually showed wit and humor, and then what we pick up as we age.
Norman C. Hill: It’s remarkable that sometimes we’ll note that about General Authorities. We all honor a prophet who’s in his 90s, yet at times, we might have a different perspective about our neighbor, who’s only in his 60s or 70s. Sometimes, I like to think of the myth that people perpetuate about aging, partially just because we repeat them often. I even refer to them as “longevity zombies.” You know, a zombie is something or someone who is no longer in full vitality. A longevity zombie is a belief or concept, it’s actually been killed off by evidence, but it’s still around scaring people because it’s repeated so often. I have a couple in mind, if I can share them, Sarah Jane. Three longevity zombies.
For instance, we’ve all probably heard and maybe even repeated the phrase, “Well ya can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or even that “old people are stuck in their ways.” Dr. Timothy Salthouse at the University of Virginia has written a book called “Major Issues in Cognitive Aging,” and he points out that actually there’s no evidence of cognitive decline in age, it’s more a issue of disuse.
Steven Jobs, the famous Apple inventor and CEO, was fond of saying and quoted in the magazine Wired, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t a very diverse set of experiences. So they don’t know enough to connect the dots.” We need more older people in technology.
And I like what Abraham Lincoln once said, “Some people are just born old. You can tell a person’s real age by how long it takes them to accept a new idea.” All of this would say, the research, the evidence, is we can learn new things, regardless of our age.
I think a second myth is that, making something very specific, well, older people have more driving accidents. In fact, AAA did a study in 2015 that found that teenagers far and away are the most accident prone. And this may be surprising Sarah Jane, the safest drivers, 60 to 69 year olds, and drivers in their 70s have the same driving record as drivers in their 40s.
Last myth, a zombie I’d like to point out is that we oftentimes see physical health as declining with age. And there have been a lot of studies around physical health and aging as well. An interesting study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School found that 20 year olds who were bedridden for three weeks have their blood pressure change, their neural activity change, their heart rates change, in much the same way as sedentary people at any age occurred. This was just a small laboratory study. Again, it shows there’s nothing inevitable about old age. In fact, people researching today from a health science point of view, are finding that vitality occurs in the 80s and 90s, as we see with President Nelson — we’re all trying to keep up with him — just as much as any younger age, provided we are active, we reach out, we do new things, we try new things.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I love all of those things. As the parent of three children, I’ve also been through those teenage driving years. But what I’m interested in is as you surveyed all of these individuals in their golden years, what were they worried about? What were they thinking about?
Norman C. Hill: Some of the normal things that occur at any age. You commented on three teenage drivers; older people worry about their children and their grandchildren. I love the quote, some years ago, I’ve forgotten who it was who said it at general conference, but a woman was asked or commented by her neighbor, “Gee, your children have all turned out so well. Doesn’t that make you really satisfied? Don’t you feel at ease at this point?” And she commented, “No. Until I see how my grandchildren have turned out, my work here isn’t done.” I like that perspective.
A friend of mine, an emeritus General Authority, Stanley G. Ellis, his father gave him a baton when his father was in his early 80s, and no one knew that he was about to pass away, gave him a baton and said, “Stan, most of all I want you to do is make sure you pass the baton, that your children and your children’s children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren are all in the gospel. That you emphasize passing the baton.”
I think a second kind of concern, in addition to children and grandchildren that older people worry about, is around physical health. And, “Am I going to be healthy and able to have a full life, as I have available time?” Data shows that there’s much we can do about it. And in our survey in Washington County in the St. George area, we found a very large number of people are walking, physically walking, on a regular basis every day. Perhaps more than anything else, that physical walking not only promotes physical health, but mental health as well. And it’s clear that not just exercise, but movement, getting out and doing things makes a big difference in both physical and cognitive health.
I like a study that was done recently at the University of California at San Francisco called “Awe Walks.” And in this study, as a way of trying to help people who were isolated during the pandemic, they asked older people, all in their 70s, not only to take a walk regularly, three to five times a week, but to also take pictures. They wanted them to be selfies — so they knew they were actually walking — take photos with their camera of just ordinary things. They wanted to increase their sense of curiosity. They wanted them to become more aware of nature, as most of them were walking in ordinary streets as well as country lanes. And as a result of pre and post tests, not only did these “Awe Walkers” increase their physical vitality, but their mental acuity as well. It’s remarkable the connection between mind and body.
Bishop [Gérald] Caussé gave a recent talk on the emphasis between mind and body and supports this same notion that was found through the University of California San Francisco study. Bishop Caussé said, “Our inner thoughts, feelings and emotions translate most often into physical sensations — whether positive or negative. … To suffocate, to feel oppressed, to be a bundle of nerves, to have a knot in one’s stomach, to jump for joy to be tickled pink — all these expressions rightly reference the constant interrelationship between the spirit and the body.”
And the general handbook of instructions emphasizes this same point. Quoting from it the handbook says, “The Lord has commanded members to take care of their minds and bodies. They should obey the Word of Wisdom, eat nutritious food, exercise regularly, and get adequate sleep. They should shun substances or practices that abuse their bodies or minds and that could lead to addiction. They should practice good sanitation and hygiene and obtain adequate medical and dental care.” You know, these, Sarah Jane, are as important for older people as they are younger people. The difference is for younger people, they can be ignored for a while, they might catch up with them, but they can be ignored for a while. For older people to ignore health and nutrition, exercise and curiosity is to begin a steep decline.
I have a neighbor who told me his father recently returned from serving as the senior missionary with his wife. Having retired now finds himself finding joy in life. He sleeps a long time, he doesn’t have any real interest, he’s unsure what to do next. And as we age in particular, this sense of curiosity of looking for new things to do, new, if you will, horizons to pursue, becomes vitally important.
Elder Robert L. Backman emphasized this when he was about to be released as a General Authority. He said, “I look forward to new experiences, new adventures, new horizons, new worlds to conquer. I look forward to new opportunities to grow physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. So many of us are afraid to leave our comfort zones and thus teach ourselves of some of the greatest adventures of our lives.” I like that as well. It is a sense of wonder and curiosity that keeps us young.
In Ghana, I learned a wonderful parable in the local language in Twi. It goes like this, “Anoma anntu a, obua da.” And in English, the rough translation is, “A bird must leave the nest in order to get a worm.” It’s this sense of always wanting to do something more looking to the future that keeps people young.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And so much of your research happened at a very pivotal time in the history of the world. In the last year, so many people have been isolated by the COVID-19 global pandemic, especially people in this demographic that we’re talking about, because the pandemic impacted those who were older at harder degrees. It impacted them differently than some of us who are below the age of 60. And so, older people found themselves isolated from their younger family members from their grandchildren. They did not have the opportunity even when we started gathering sometimes to go to Church; they were encouraged to do that by electronic means. So how did isolation of the pandemic impact this population that we’re talking about?
Norman C. Hill: In different ways. I am aware of people who I’ve interviewed who have become extremely lonely and in many cases even more than lonely, very bored. Because they had limited exposure to others, they couldn’t go out, whether it was to a park or to the movies. They couldn’t see their grandchildren. And for this group, nationally, data shows that there’s been a much higher than expected mortality rate. People have passed away because of isolation and confinement.
Separate from that group, there is a group of people who have said the equivalent of, “Let’s turn lemons into lemonade.” As missionaries are doing.You know missionaries — I have five grandsons who are on missions — and they had to learn to adapt with isolation and confinement as well. From being very active from proselyting by knocking on doors and contacting people in the street, to instead shift things in social media. In our ward, we did a survey of those who were technology challenged. And since I’m an Aaronic Priesthood adviser, I organized our Aaronic Priesthood to, without going into people’s homes, help them get connected to Zoom, to help them download FaceTime, and be able to use that app. And as a result, we’ve seen an upsurge, in some cases, of people who are better connected than they were in the past.
I’m going to give a personal example. So my children all live out of state and we typically would fly a couple of times a year to each location and participate in important events, from baptisms to mission farewells, to priesthood ordinations. That wasn’t possible in some cases. So we use Zoom to be able to participate in those ordinances during the pandemic. As an extension of that we started to have “Come, Follow Me” every Sunday as an extended family. And then we shared our experiences with others on how we got started; what seemed to work and what doesn’t. Sometimes, our children — I know this is going to be shocking Sarah Jane — they don’t always want our input. Sometimes, as one of my sons says, “Dad, you have a few more unsolicited suggestions than I can handle at any given point in time.” But I’ve had to learn to ratchet that back and figure out where I can offer suggestions, and what will be helpful and what won’t, even during a “Come, Follow Me” discussion.
In addition, the Church has responded with some very innovative ways of not only connecting multigenerationally, people to others, but using technology. So as a for instance, I have a friend Carl, he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He and four other couples in their stake have been called as mentors to young single adults in West Africa. They, on a regular basis, several times a week, will connect sometimes to groups, sometimes to individuals, and share experiences. Sometimes it’s very unstructured, sometimes it’s more structured, from the comfort of his kitchen table. He doesn’t have to relocate as a senior missionary. They have some health issues and wouldn’t be able to do so anyway. But they’re able to reach across an ocean, and not only learn from young single adults in a whole different part of the world but share experiences as well. It’s that kind of reaching out, that I think has made a difference for many couples, older senior couples, and sometimes individuals as well.
I have a cousin who’s a widow, who participated in mentoring a group of schoolchildren in Ghana. I’m on a board with “Ghana Make A Difference.” It’s a small nonprofit that focuses on children who are abandoned by their parents. And many of these students are not able to go to high school because they don’t have the resources that help them prepare for a high school entrance exam. We have a college entrance exam in many places, outside of the U.S., there’s the equivalent of a high school entrance exam. And my cousin has been mentoring schoolchildren, helping them prepare for this high school entrance exam. It’s called the BECE [Basic Education Certificate Examination]. In addition, I’ve connected senior couples who served in our mission area and enabled them to mentor schoolchildren as well. It’s those kinds of experiences that I think have allowed some to flourish rather than languish during the pandemic.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And some of these principles of just good health seem to be relevant not just during the pandemic but so many other times. You know, you’ve mentioned the need for physical health that comes often with walking, and emotional health as we connect with family and loved ones, and mental health as we do things that keep us mentally strong. You talked about spiritual serving and connection. It seems like so many of the people that, in my own family members or people that I meet, often worry about how they will serve in the Church as they age. Well, I’ve heard people say, “Well, you know, the younger generation is doing the service now,” or, “I’ve been put out to pasture.” You’ve mentioned some ways that people have found they can serve right now. Why is service in the Church so important?
Norman C. Hill: Turns us outward. Instead of thinking about ourselves, it enables us to think about others. It changes our perspective, in that very dramatic way. In President Nelson’s November broadcast on thanksgiving, he emphasized that we should “count our blessings rather than recount our difficulties.” And by looking outward at other people it changes how we think about ourselves.
There’s an interesting book called “Consequential Strangers.” And in it, the author Karen Fingerman talks about how just having conversations with people we meet during the week, during a day, can change our outlook. Can have the equivalent of the emotional uptick that we get from service. It’s well documented that gratitude and serving others physically has an impact on us as well. It relaxes us. It changes our sense of anxiety. It minimises ordinary depression. So by having conversations with these consequential strangers, by serving others, it enables us to be less concerned about our own difficulties and more concerned about how we can do some good in the world.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’ve read some things, some research, as well as even some research done by some BYU professors, that have identified loneliness as a particularly widespread problem among some of this aging demographic. You know, we heard President Thomas S. Monson talk often about visiting widows in his ward and emphasizing these personal visits, as part of a defining part of his personal ministry. How can we prevent loneliness? And what suggestions do you have for anyone who may be dealing with it?
Norman C. Hill: It is reaching out to others. In addition to President Monson’s ministry, both as a bishop and as a General Authority, and visiting the widows and the fatherless, as James emphasizes, in the New Testament. President Ezra Taft Benson has a similar perspective. President Benson said, “The key to overcoming aloneness and a feeling of uselessness, is to step outside of yourself by helping others who are truly needy. We promise those who will render this kind of service, that in some measure, you will be healed of the loss of loved ones or the dread of being alone.” Now, Sarah Jane, that’s a pretty dramatic promise that President Benson has given us, “We’ll be healed of the loss of loved ones and the dread of being alone.”
It’s this reaching out to others that I think makes a big difference. It’s seeing ourselves, not just in our own situation, but seeing the opportunity to go about doing good, as the book of Acts tells us the Savior did, that constantly changes, and enables us to think about the future. It’s that willingness to set new goals that researchers tell us makes an enormous difference in not just aging well, but living life to the fullest. This orientation to others, to serve, — which can occur of course at any age and in any circumstance. My mother-in-law is in an assisted living center. And there are several people who are there who make a point of visiting her. She’s currently on hospice. They are not just in their own situation waiting for the future, but they’re embracing people who need a visit and are eager to be both ministered to and to minister.
Sarah Jane Weaver: It’s hard not to talk about older Latter-day Saints without acknowledging President Russell M. Nelson. In the first two years that he was President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he traveled to 35 nations, and at age 96 he doesn’t appear to be slowing down at all. He’s absolutely embraced these older years. His wife even acknowledged that maybe he’s different than the average person. She says “I’m highly suspicious of his birth certificate.” So I don’t know that he’s the bar for all of us. But there is absolutely some blessings that come into our lives as we grow older. Can you detail some of those?
Norman C. Hill: There are great blessings that come into our lives, and while President Nelson is a shining example, there are others. My friend, Dick Matthews, is in his 90s and he and his wife Faye, until COVID came, were very active. He was a sealer in the temple. He was following sports, and always interested in us. We played games together, talked about missions and experiences that we had each had.
President McKay, 77 years old at the time, loved to quote the others who were doing productive things and engaged, regardless of their age. And at one point in time, commented, “This is the most wonderful time of life that comes when father and mother become close friends or they’re grown-up, successful sons and daughters, and begin to enjoy their children’s children.” It is that sense of what sometimes is called “generativity,” giving back to others, that comes with age. We want to be able to share things that we’ve learned, and sometimes our children and grandchildren are open to those things, and they’re a little less though.
The psalmist commented in the book of Psalms 71, “Now also when I am old and gray headed, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.” The psalmist wanted to make sure, like Stan Ellis and his family, that the gospel message was passed on to each generation. I think that as interesting and as important an activity as any of us can imagine. And can be done in creative and innovative ways through technology, in ways that couldn’t have occurred in the past, simply because people 200 years ago lived on an isolated farm and location with limited communication devices.
Today, there’s a whole world that’s available to us, and opportunities to serve, whether in the Church, or in our community, in our family, in our extended family, with our neighbors, that perhaps wasn’t as available as it was some number of years ago. We can tell family stories to our children and our children’s children. And in fact, research shows that both younger children and teenagers not only like to learn about family stories, but it helps with life transitions. In preteen years in particular, children who discuss everyday events and family history with parents and grandparents have been documented to have higher self-esteem and stronger self-concepts than their peers. It’s a way of how the “hearts of the fathers can turn to the children and the children to the fathers.”
Elder Hartman Rector Jr. often said, “This means of telling family stories and writing personal histories is the best way to fulfill that scripture.” And at a period of our life as we live longer. Not only do we want to be able to share these experiences, but it seems to make a difference emotionally, as well as spiritually to younger children.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, what a beautiful promise. You know, we have a tradition at the Church News podcast where we end each podcast with the same question. I feel bad that we have to end today. There’s so much more we could talk about in this important subject. But I’d love to hear your personal testimony and then have you answer the most important question, “What do you know now?” What do you know now as you have researched and explored and grown from your study of aging and faith?
Norman C. Hill: You’re only as old as you think you are. The research data would confirm what we know in the Church; that life is what you make it. And age is just the number. And to the degree that we let the opinions of others overrule our own belief in ourselves, is to the degree that we diminish ourselves spiritually, mentally and physically. It is through exercise, not only physically but spiritually, that we remain vital and grow.
I like a stanza from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s oft-cited, in his poem, “Ulysses.” I’d like to read the this two stances if I can:
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods. …
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I think it is that willingness to strive. I interviewed a man in his 80s battling cancer, who was building an addition for a girls camp, and he told me, “I can’t die now. I wake up, nauseous, some days, especially after I’ve had chemotherapy. I don’t have the physical strength because of the disease that I have. But I can’t stop now. I have goals that I need to achieve.” It is that goal orientation, that willingness to strive, that I think the Lord wants us at every age to embrace.
I’ve found that if we live long enough, we will have plenty to grieve, mourn, feel disappointment about, draw us down. Those are simply part of mortality. But life is to be lived, not merely endured. And as we embrace the gospel, constantly look for new things to do and to be, the Lord will open doors for us that we can’t imagine. We most of all are His children, and most of all, His vision for us is to be like Him. My hope is to do that every day of my life. And my wish is that regardless of our age, we seek to become more like Him. And of that I bear my witness, that He will help us in any circumstance, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.