Near the end of the road, what matters the most?
Giving back to others is a key to aging with grace, says gerontology expert who is doing just that at UNO.
George was a sick old man.
Once a powerful man – in World War II, he’d been an assistant to General Patton – he now lived in a nursing home. He had diabetes. Both legs had been amputated. His eyes were failing. When he spilled soup on his chin, someone else had to wipe it. He couldn’t feed himself.
Yet George was a happy old man.
He inspired the nursing home staff, and he inspired a Catholic priest named Leo Missinne, an expert on aging and a professor emeritus in UNO’s department of gerontology. Missinne wrote about George in his latest book, “In This Life: Spiritual Growth and Aging.”:
Although he had been through much, George continued to set goals. He set a goal to get his diabetes under control and visit his nephew’s home for Christmas. … He was making plans to fight his illness in a systematic way and was full of hope and courage.
Retired himself now and 87 years old, Missinne serves as a chaplain in a nursing home in Belgium, his home country. He belongs to the order of the Missionaries of Africa. He’s seen his share of suffering. He lost a few good friends, who were murdered in the Congo doing missionary work. He recently lost both his brother and sister.
But he’s a happy old man, too.
To be happy, Missinne says, most people need to find meaning in their life. That can be especially true when the road nears its end. Older people, he says, can find meaning in helping others.
And in giving back what they themselves received from others.
Missinne has found meaning in his life by devoting it to God and to love and to his students, teaching them to understand the needs of older people and how to help them set goals and find hope.
“I am grateful for what my students and fellow teachers have given me,” Missinne said via e-mail from Belgium. “They have been inspirational to me.
“The death of my brother and of my sister has been teaching me how to live and what is really important in life. Real life is helping other people who are needy (spiritually and physically). That is the essence of what Christian faith is all about. In helping these needy people, we will become closer to God, who is the source of all genuine love, and also closer to ourselves.”
Missinne came to UNO as a visiting lecturer from 1971 to 1973 and then continued as a professor of gerontology for the next 20 years. He’s written more than 110 books and articles and has won many awards, including the Excellence in Teaching Award from UNO.
He never forgot UNO.
He recently created a professorship in its department of gerontology and a scholarship fund for gerontology students.
“UNO has an excellent spirit and genuine humane relations and is doing excellent academic research,” Missinne said.
In August, Christopher M. Kelly, Ph.D., was named the first Leo Missinne Professor in Gerontology at UNO. He says the Missinne Professorship will help him support his research into long-term care policy and will help the department continue to recruit and develop gerontology students, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Kelly says his mission is to explore ways of improving the quality of long-term care services, both the care delivered in residential facilities and in the services provided to older people in their homes.
“I hope that my research is able to reflect Father Missinne’s beliefs, particularly in the principle that every person is entitled to a life that is free from want with needs such as health care met,” Kelly said. “These are basic human rights that transcend national boundaries.”
Missinne could not attend the celebration that announced his gift this past April at UNO. So he wrote down some thoughts to be shared:
Let me as an “older” person and an “old” teacher propose a few suggestions.
Try to help older people in finding new ways that can help them to more enjoy life.
Do not impose yourself but work with them and for them.
Learn to listen to them and to love them, because you cannot really listen if you do not love them.
Help them to believe in themselves, in other human beings and in God.
Avoid being too intellectual, but let your heart be the beginning of your scientific research.
With my best wishes,
Leo E. Missinne
Support for faculty and support for students are priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska, now in its final year. Since it began in 2005, the campaign has raised more than $230 million for UNO and has created 648 new funds here, including 25 for faculty support and 276 for student support.
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