Ageing: A Gift or a Burden?

On March 7th, the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology hosted a Symposium, “Ageing: A Gift or a Burden?” Its express purpose was to examine the theological and spiritual implications of the current narratives of ageing. Our day began with a presentation from Kenneth Howse, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and formerly of the Centre for Policy on Ageing. The statistics that he presented were staggering. Current projections suggest that by 2050, more than half of the UK population will live to be a hundred years old. Mr. Howse highlighted how pressing a practical concern this is considering its potential impact on pensions and liabilities, the provision of public goods, such as social and healthcare, as well as the increasing presence of a demographic that is no longer able to be part of the workforce. Further, the mixed-blessing of being longer-lived is that more of us can anticipate our latter years involving at once serious and various kinds of potential infirmity and dependency.

Demographers and statisticians try to create categories to account for the discrepancy between actual life expectancy and ‘healthy’ life expectancy. For examplethey try to measure how long can one expect to age ‘actively’, ‘successfully,’ or ‘productively’. Howse noted how value-laden, subjective and problematic these terms could be. He also noted that there is very little work done on the practical ethics surrounding an increasingly older population. Instead, ageing is routinely treated as a problem for bio-ethics and the questions surrounding end-of-life care. He concluded that the policy and practical ethical concerns occasioned by these huge demographic shifts are under-treated by theologians, ethicists and policy-makers alike.

Rodie Garland is a research and policy analyst at FaithAction, a national network of faith-based organizations involved in social action. She explained the work they are doing building dementia-friendly faith communities as well as the integral role that faith communities play in supporting those suffering from dementia and their families. It is expected that by 2021 over a million people in the UK will suffer from dementia. Faith communities offset that burden to public health significantly. Her analysis was far-ranging and pastoral but also dealt with practicalities of such work, like having signs not just to the toilets but back to the sanctuary from them as well.

Theodora Bowering is an architect, Gates Scholar and PhD Candidate in the Centre for Urban Conflict Research at the Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge. She also co-convenes the CRASSH Seminar series ‘Ageing and the City’, in collaboration with the Institute for Public Health and the Department of Land Economy. Ms. Bowering gave a fascinating short paper on the socio-political effects of the way architecture is designed when it is designed ‘for the elderly’. She showed how these designs often delimit access to civic spaces and, by extension, civic participation. These designs often increase barriers to any of possibility of novel experiences or relationships. Older people are sequestered. Concerns about dementia and other forms of compromised cognition result in locked doors and bland, non-descript buildings set at a great distance away from roads and places of commerce.  She presented a case study of these types of socio-spatial marginalization, looking in particular at the issues of memory and mobility experienced by older people in the borough of Newham in East London.

Dr. Ursula King is well-known for her work on interfaith dialogue, modern Hinduism and the theological work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. She presented a thoroughly positive account of ageing. She described ageing as a process of spiritual deepening and reflection, taking seriously the idea that one ‘grows’ old – that it really is a growth, not merely a slow diminishment of capacities. As responsibilities lessen, we are forced to slow down. Old age becomes a type of natural monastery. Thus, ageing, especially in later life, Dr. King reflected, creates the possibility of new kinds of freedoms.

Dr. Gillian Paterson took an exegetical approach and did a brief survey of how Scripture handles the elderly, which, perhaps surprisingly, is consistently as prophetic figures, It is repeatedly the aged and barren who testify to God’s incredible power to redeem and to bring newness into the world – Sarah and Elizabeth, Eli “whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see” (1 Samuel 3), teaching Samuel to recognize God’s voice and the elderly prophet Anna and Simeon, being among the first to recognize the Christ-child. While, in the contemporary world, the elderly are often treated as having perspectives that are obsolete or backward, in the Bible they are often presented as figures that see through to a new future that others cannot. In Scripture, the aged and barren are bastions of new life.

Catherine Sexton is a doctoral student and research fellow at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology. Her work examines the experiences of aged apostolic religious sisters whose identity and spiritually had been active, and often very physical, to see how their sense of identity and ministry shifts when they were unable to serve in these capacities. With love understood as self-gift, they reported that increasingly they could only give time, availability and presence, though they had less and less choice about who they were available to. Ms. Sexton also observed that as these sisters grew more and more dependent, their understanding of service seemed to shift from concern for their carers’ lives to concern about how to reduce the burden their needs created for their carers.

Tonie Askin is an MBIT Alumna who is also a prison chaplain. She brought to our attention the complicated nature of ageing prison populations and shared another staggering statistic.  In the last 15 years, prisoners aged 50 or older has risen 150%  and Public Health England estimates  14,300 over-50s being incarcerated by 2021. This means that over-50s are the fastest growing prison population. This presents a huge challenge to the prison system, as people grow frail and is especially complicated in cases of dementia. Ms. Askin Master’s thesis explored a spirituality of ageing in relation to spiritual wounding and the possibility of healing what are often very old wounds. Ms. Askin meditated on examples of ministering to women in their latter years who had deep anxiety regarding their relationships to God, having in their early life been taught to fear death since it was going to coincide with judgment by an angry God.

Ms. Jo Jacques examined ageing through the lens of moral psychologist Erik Erikson’s theories of moral development as a life-long process. She noted that what Erikson described an “identity crisis”, a term he coined, was not just a stage for adolescents trying to regain an integrated sense of self through the changes of adolescent life, but is occasioned numerous times throughout one’s life – a continued piece of psychological development. Ms. Jacques said this was especially interesting in relation to the experience of retirement, being a particularly acute type of identity crisis. She presented the possibility that this crisis, and maturing in general, offer an opportunity to integrate a stable sense of identity later in life, providing ways of coping psychologically with these shifts in identity over time Among other things, this perspective frames later life as a new horizon for moral development.

The whole group discussed together various experiences of the value of ‘play’ and other improvisational techniques, such as always saying yes, when interacting with those suffering from very severe dementia. The day concluded with John Wilkins, MBE, former editor of the Tablet providing a lovely meditation on ageing from Joan Chittister OSB and two short reflections on the day’s proceedings from our two listeners, Principal Anna Abram and myself. Dr. Abram noted how fear about growing old ran throughout most of discussion, and I was struck by how readily even the most incisive analysis turned to the anecdotal – the topic seemed unavoidably personal. We agreed the topic merited further discussion and analysis, in a form yet to be determined. We parted company with a new awareness of how pressing and complex the questions surrounding the reality of ageing really is with high hopes that it might be treated with realism, insight and hope.

Written by Thea Reimer, Communications and Social Media Intern for the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (2018/19)

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