Ageing

Bishop George Hacker shares some thoughts on retirement and growing old and what is an appropriate spirituality for that stage.


This article was first published in the Spring 2008 number of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

The Rt Revd George Hacker, was Bishop of Penrith from 1979 until his retirement in 1994. His connection with the Guild goes back to his ordination in 1954, when, as a part-time chaplain to the Bristol General Hospital, it was to the Guild he looked for literature, and for help with the ministry of healing for the patients in his care. He has been Editor of Chrism since 1996, but is retiring at the end of 2008. As Bishop of Penrith, he was the Bishop of Carlisle’s Advisor for Hospital Chaplains and Chairman of the Diocesan Healing Advisory Group, and from 1982 to 1990 was a member of the East Cumbria Health Authority. His book ‘The Healing Stream: Catholic Insights into the Ministry of Healing’ was published in 1998.

© Guild of St Raphael

Life's Changing Seasons

The Franciscan, Brother Ramon, in a little book entitled Life's Changing Seasons, begins the section on Autumn: the Season of Contemplation with these words: ‘In the Hindu tradition, when a man has come through the successive stages of his life, experiencing the phases of human existence in terms of dependence, learning, working, marrying, begetting and seeing his family grow up, he then may hand over his household burdens and concerns to his son, and either alone or with his wife, enter into a more contemplative phase in which, having laid aside worldly anxieties, and detached from the world, prepares himself for his last and greatest journey.’

It is helpful sometimes to look at life through the eyes of a different culture, and in no case is this more so than when it comes to old age and death. Having been retired now for thirteen years, I cannot help contrasting the sort of expectations about retirement, which are found in our Western society, with the approach in the quotation above.

Hindu culture sees old age as a natural stage in life—to be treated as something which exists in its own right, just as all the other stages do. Our Western culture, by contrast, sees it as marginal—the end of a person’s productive life and the giving up of whatever status they may have achieved through their career. ‘How does it feel to be a nobody?’, somebody asked my wife shortly after I had retired! Her reply is not recorded, but that the question could be asked indicates clearly enough how most people see it. Again Hindu culture sees retirement as providing an opportunity to do what is appropriate at that time of life. That is why it values it as a stage in its own right. It sees it as the time of life for ‘contemplation’, the time when you come to terms with yourself and with the universe of which you are part, and with God however you may conceive him, and when you prepare for eternity. Our Western culture by contrast sees retirement as a problem—something which may even precipitate a crisis—a time when you will not have enough to do, when you may have to face things about yourself, your marriage, the meaning of life, which you have managed to keep at bay through all the busy years that have gone before.

I was fascinated during the run-up to retirement by the things that were said to me. Most of these came in the form of clichés, but clichés are a good indication of what society in general thinks about a particular thing, and these were no exception. In fact I very quickly came to see them as a sort of code for the way in which our Western culture views retirement and old age.

‘I expect you will be just as busy after you have retired’—code for ‘Will you still be a useful member of society?’ As has just been pointed out, worth in our Western culture is measured by results. What you achieve is what matters and what gives you your place in society. ‘What do you do?’ is one of the first things we ask a stranger, and if they confess to being unemployed then there is an embarrassed silence. We find it difficult to handle the idea of just ‘being’. Yet what we are and what we become are at least as important as what we do.

‘Well, you've certainly earned it’—code for ‘Now you can please yourself and life will be one long holiday’. Our culture is dedicated to the cult of ‘pleasing yourself’ and provides plenty of opportunities for people to do this. In particular holidays are seen as times of escape, when people indulge themselves—sometimes in ways which would not be considered socially permissible at other times. The suggestion here is that retirement will be one long holiday from reality, and kept that way with the hobbies and interests that fill one’s time. Yet ‘space’ in life is a priceless gift just because it does enable us to come to terms with reality and those who squander it squander something that is very precious.

Then (most sinister of all), ‘You look far too young to be retired’—code for ‘We do not want to think about old age and death’. Ours is a culture in which death is the great unmentionable—to be banished behind hospital screens and disposed of quickly and tastefully at the crematorium. And we like our old people to be ‘wonderful’, not only for their sakes, but because anything else reminds us of how the story—our story—will one day end, and that does not bear thinking about. Yet death—our death—is the one thing that is absolutely certain in life, and there is need to face this and the diminishments which may precede it, if this last stage in our journey is to have the depth and tranquillity that it ought to have.

There are signs of course that attitudes are changing. 2006 saw the passing of the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations—a new law providing protection against age discrimination in the workplace. And back in 2001 we had the Department of Health’s National Service Framework for Older People, which contained a section entitled, ‘Rooting out age discrimination’—a surprisingly forceful expression in a government document! Moreover this particular paper had quite a lot to say about underlying attitudes: ‘Retirement is no longer seen as a preparation for decline’, sums up much of its approach, and there was talk of older people being a resource rather than a problem—of making use of their experience; encouraging their contribution through voluntary work. There was even some advice on political correctness—‘older people’ instead of ‘old people’ or ‘the elderly’!

Then there is the fact that there are a lot more older people around, and certain elements in society are now waking up to this—all of which affects attitudes. So politicians are becoming increasingly aware of the power of the ‘grey vote’; and the business world of the market potential of the ‘grey pound’. You have only to look at the more upmarket travel brochures to see the truth of this as far as the latter is concerned.

All this is to be welcomed, but the question remains: Is it enough? There is a sense in which this is still viewing older people through the same Western achievement focused spectacles. I believe that something more fundamental is needed—a way of looking at old age which sees it as a stage of life in its own right. As we saw at the beginning, other cultures can act as a corrective here. In particular the wise old man or woman has a special place in many cultures. They are the keepers of memories, which they pass on to the next generation. We see this still to some extent in our own culture in the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. (So Patsy Gray aged seven on ‘What is a granny?’: ‘Everyone should have one, because grannies are the only grown-ups who have time!’). And it is still true that in our culture the family is perhaps one of the few places where older people still have a natural recognized place in society. But it is a position which is increasingly under threat. Families are often scattered, with sons and daughters living far away. Add to this the high incidence of marriage break up, and the fact that in many places the natural community, which once gave older people a real sense of belonging, has virtually ceased to exist, and you can see why so many older people feel marginalized in our Western society.

THE AUTUMN OF LIFE

It has often been pointed out that for many people in the West retirement comes in two stages. There is the active stage when you still have the energy and health to engage in a multitude of activities, and then there is the stage when you ‘retire’ from retirement, as frailty and loss of faculties begin to take over. A great deal could be said about the active stage, but it is particularly important that it should be seen not just as a continuation of pre-retirement busyness, but rather as providing opportunities for the individual’s continuing growth as a person. Brother Ramon in Life’s Changing Seasons sees the Autumn of life as a time of ‘maturing’ like the fruit in the orchards, and there is a tempo and rhythm which is appropriate to this stage in life, and which should be different from the way we lived previously.

I recently came across some interesting comments on this in the writings of a certain Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi from the Spiritual Eldering Institute in Boulder, Colorada. He divides life into twelve periods of seven years (a biblical number) corresponding to the months of the year. So we reach twenty-one at the beginning of April—in the Spring; and the Summer months see us at the height of our career. Retirement (as in Brother Ramon’s analysis) belongs to the Autumn of life—the time of fruit bearing. In an article entitled Harvesting a Lifetime Jenny Goodman, a psychotherapist and writer, summarises the Rabbi’s teaching by saying: In autumn time ‘we cannot afford to be addicted to habits of rushing and conquering, habits that we acquired in earlier phases of life. When we don’t recognize this, and still try to do things in the old way, we become depressed or angry. One of the gifts of the autumn time is that we can be released from “Commodity Time” (Monday to Friday, nine to five) into “Organic Time”—day and night, summer and winter, harmonising our bodies to the tides and cycles of the natural world.’

The psychiatrist Carl Jung said something similar many years before when he wrote: ‘We cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning.’ Jung saw life as falling into two stages and regarded it as very important that we differentiate between the two. The first half of life he called ‘the morning’, when the sun seems to rise above the horizon and climb slowly to the meridian. The second half is ‘the afternoon’, when the sun begins to sink and finally disappears. What is appropriate for the morning of life is not suitable for the afternoon. Jung said that the morning of life should be given to activity—establishing yourself in the world, finding a wife or husband, raising a family, pursuing your career. The second half of life should be given to something more contemplative. Jung actually uses the word ‘contemplation’, though his more usual word for this activity is ‘individuation’, by which he means seeking maturity through self-knowledge, coming to terms with one’s limitations, asking the deep questions, mending relationships. Jung actually saw this process as beginning well before retirement and was concerned amongst other things with the mid-life crisis. And one would hope that this process would begin earlier—Christians are taught after all about the importance of self-examination and the need for space in one’s life. But the reality is that in retirement we do have more time and fewer distractions—and fewer means of escape!

I find it very interesting the way in which spirituality and psychology seem to match up here. Jung even called this whole experience a ‘spiritual quest or journey’. But is not an easy road—coming to terms with the unfinished business in one’s life can be very painful. And the temptation is always to escape into activity. But it is something which has to be done. The reality is that for most of us there is likely to come a point when we will have to give up many of the activities that we rely on to fill our time, and then there will be no escape. I believe a lot of the bitterness and loneliness which we see in older people can be traced to this—that they have never come to terms with the unfinished business in their lives.

Archbishop Anthony Bloom has some wise things to say here: ‘The past is with us in two ways. Either it is events which have occurred but have then withered and gone, that have fashioned us; or the past remains in us as unresolved problems, and it is then we must remember that God gives us a chance. Forced back in dreams, in nightmares, in reminiscences, in different encounters, or horrified perhaps by a novel which suddenly depicts our own situation, we must not turn away. We must face it and say, “If I am the person who did it, it’s not the past, it is my present and it must be resolved one way or another”.’

WHEN WINTER COMES

Up to now we have been thinking mainly about active retirement. But what about later—when the sun sinks lower down the horizon and we become less active? Our ‘diminishments’ to use Pierre Teillard de Chardin’s evocative phrase—when we experience loss of powers—hearing, sight, health, mobility, memory. Some can be highly symbolic such as giving up driving. I think too of an incumbent who went through agonies as to how he was to tell an elderly retired priest that he ought to give up assisting with the chalice. He was slopping the wine around and the congregation were beginning to complain.

The NHS identifies three categories of ageing—‘Entering Old Age’, the ‘Transitional Phase’, and ‘Frail Older People’. It is the two last that we are concerned with here.

As far as these are concerned society’s attitude doesn’t help. By and large society sees these stages in life as a problem, and that is quite understandable. However the trouble with seeing things as a problem (and particularly people as a problem) is that it can have a negative effect on the way you view them—and also on the way individuals view themselves. We have all heard older people say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden’.

To some extent this too is a cultural matter. Self-sufficiency and independence are seen as a virtue in Western society. Helen Oppenheimer (a freelance writer) puts this clearly when she talks about ‘the one-sided cult of autonomy, which has become a tyranny. There is a new commandment: “You must take control of your life”; and there are always plenty of people, old and young, who for many reasons cannot obey this command, and devalue themselves accordingly. . . Total autonomy is a fiction, and not an inspiring one.’

Again it is interesting to look at this through the eyes of another culture. Donald Nicholl in his book Holiness contrasts the way Americans and Japanese view dependence on others. ‘In the American view, a human child is born in a state of utter dependence on his or her parents, relatives and society and grows by becoming less and less dependent.’ So the American ideal (and not only the American) is the independent man or woman who has maximum control of their own lives. By contrast the Japanese see dependence on others as the proper goal of life. They have a word amaeru—which means tenderness—the tenderness which comes from depending on one another. So for the Japanese ‘the human child is born in a state of loneliness, incapable of communication with the rest of humanity. The way out of this loneliness leads by way of tenderness into a proper sense of dependence on others. . . And the climax of human growth comes at the very end of life [when] one dies in the midst of one’s community, gladly acknowledging that one is depending on others to care for one at the end—to carry one’s body to the proper place for the funeral rites. Certainly no human being, however autonomous, is able properly to dispose of his own body.’

All this of course has its counterpart in Christianity. Just to pick up that phrase about ‘being a burden’, there is a whole spirituality surrounding that particular experience which can transform it. For example, learning to rely on God is something which is right at the heart of the Gospel—there is a sense in which we were created to be ‘burdens’. And for those with eyes to see our dependence on others can become a kind of sacrament reminding us of our need to depend on God.

Then ‘being a burden’ teaches us the importance of being a ‘good receiver’—another hard lesson to learn; but it is only when we have learnt to be good receivers that the cycle of love—the cycle of giving and receiving—is maintained. Those passages in the Gospels where Jesus shows himself as a ‘good receiver’ are particularly illuminating. The anointing at Bethany for example (Mark 14.3-9). Extravagance, yes! But Jesus knew the value of a generous gesture and was quick to recognize the love that lay behind it. And he wouldn’t let the woman concerned be criticized.

But there is more to it than that. W.H.Vanstone in his book The Stature of Waiting has an illuminating passage in which he talks about the ‘handed over’ Jesus. He points to that crucial moment in the Gospels when Jesus allowed himself to be handed over to those who had come to arrest him, and how from that moment he exchanged an active role for a passive one. No longer was he in control of his life—his fate was now in the hands of others. Yet it was through this surrender that God was able to save the world.

What this says is that we are perhaps nearest to God, not in those moments when we are actively co-operating with him in some sort of creative activity, but when we are passive and helpless and no longer in control of what we do or what is done to us. Indeed the figure of the ‘handed over’ Jesus is a key one for the frail elderly person. And this is particularly true of the idea of ‘waiting’, which goes with the surrender of control of one’s life. So much of a frail elderly person's time is spent in waiting—for the doctor, the nurse, visitors, someone to move them, make them comfortable, retrieve something out of reach. This waiting is one of the hardest things to bear, but in the figure of the ‘handed over’ Jesus they can know that this was part of his cross too, lifting ‘being a burden’ onto an altogether different plane.

Having said all this we always tread a knife edge between acceptance and the determination to stay independent—and modern medicine can help a lot here. But there comes a time for most of us when limitations need to be accepted graciously. Certainly the Western ideal of the totally independent man or woman relying wholly on their own resources is not part of the Christian Gospel!

I suppose the ultimate in dependence is when a person’s mind goes, and I must say something about this, because much of what I have said so far does depend on our being sound of mind. And this is not an academic matter—one in five of over eighty’s suffer from dementia.

The point I want to make here is that dementia is not only a social and medical problem, it is also a religious one. Think how much our religion depends on our ability to remember. The Gospel—the good news—something that has to be communicated. It is as basic as that. What if we’ve forgotten all we ever knew of Jesus? How can we repent and believe if we can’t remember anything? There is a sense in which the ‘good news’ can be very ‘bad news’ for a person with dementia.

Malcolm Goldsmith, who has made a special study of the theological implications of dementia, has this to say about the Gospel seen as ‘good news’: ‘The traditional models of faith and discipleship, to my mind, place far too much emphasis upon what we do, or don’t do. In this way, the initiative seems to lie with us, and our spirituality is in one way or another dependent upon our own capabilities. The Gospel on the other hand, is all about God’s initiative, all about God’s love and care and mercy. The good news is about God’s belief in us and acceptance of us, and not about our belief in and acceptance of God.’ And he goes on to say that perhaps the experience of dementia—what he calls a ‘journey into a strange and foreign land’—has something to teach the Church, about God’s initiative, about God’s hold on us, about God’s love for us. ‘O love that will not let me go. . .’

Perhaps the last word on this—and indeed on all we have been thinking about—comes from Sister Laura, a Roman Catholic nun, who was mistakenly diagnosed as having Alzheimer‘s. Looking back on her ordeal, she said: ‘Do you know what my worst fear was? That I was going to forget Jesus. I finally realized that I may not remember Him, but He will remember me.’



© Guild of St Raphael