There is so much to fascinate those interested in their own ageing, and in the recent shifts in attitudes to the ageing process, and the lives of older people generally in today’s society, in Spiritual Dimensions of Ageing , edited by Malcolm Johnson and Joanna Walker (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
This is what one might call a ‘once in a generation’ book, collecting the views of sixteen academics, researchers and practitioners from all over the world.
Much research in past decades has come out of North America, notably Harry R. Moody, Robert Atchley, and Ronald J. Manheimer, all of whom feature in this volume. Australian professor, Elizabeth MacKinlay, also contributes a section on ‘Ageing and Spirituality Across Faiths and Cultures.
British contributors include Joanna Walker, whose arguments for encouraging spiritual learning and development in our later years chime so distinctly with the aims of The Gift of Years. Joanna, who is currently engaged in postgraduate research on ageing and spirituality at Southampton University, writes: ‘Ministry with and for older people should be much higher on the training and policy concerns of faith communities.’
Community theologian, Ann Morisy, an associate of PSALM, Project for Seniors and Lifelong Ministry, argues passionately for the power of conversation to foster hope and resilience in later life.
It is a time when an older person may experience what has been dubbed ‘multiple overwhelmings’. Loss heaped upon loss joins everyday frustrations, whether that be ‘the light bulb that defies efforts to unscrew, the damp patch in the corner of the room that each week gets bigger, the note from the GP sending you to the local hospital for tests, the terminal illness of a close friend or the impending divorce of one’s youngest daughter. This list could easily grow because the experience of ‘multiple overwhelmings’.
Conversation changes perspective. ‘Through conversation it is possible to reframe adverse events and… conversation can be a vital aid in the challenge of reframing one’s perspective. The aim would be to locate a positive but not naïve standpoint from which to view that which threatens to overwhelm.’
A theology of ageing
Principal of Salisbury’s Sarum College, James Woodward, has also contributed a chapter exploring a new theology of ageing, and how identity is conceived in our later years.
His chapter includes stories, anecdotes and self-reflection. He presents another way of viewing the ageing process, one that is different from a reliance on facts and figures, saying, ‘I want to make a plea to support the development of very different ways for speaking about what we struggle with as we grow older.
‘If the only narrative that we have for understanding the public discourse about ageing is that of statistics or science then we fail to develop a critical vision or a larger story within which people’s experience makes any sense.’
‘Keep ageing on the agenda’
Methodist minister Albert Jewell, formerly Pastoral Director and Senior Chaplain with MHA Car Group, Methodist Homes, has written on ‘Finding Meaning and sustaining Purpose in Later Life’. He ventures the hope that ‘this book will encourage faith groups to keep ageing very much on their agendas so that elders may find strength to complete "the last lap" meaningfully and to die well.’
His former Methodist Homes colleague, Keith Albans, MHA’s Director of Chaplaincy and Spirituality, examines what constitutes ‘a good death’ and how it relates to care of older people particularly in the light of the changing pattern of dying in later life, when more of us may be living longer but death has become increasingly medicalised.
Any discussion of death is really about living well before we die. He stresses how 'the quality of the last part of our journey is dependent, importantly on those with whom we can share our thoughts and experiences.'
Keith Albans writes: ‘In thinking about the landmarks on the final lap of our journey, it becomes clear how important a role can be played by those able and willing to be accompanists on that journey. They highlight the significance of taking seriously an individual’s story in order to help them retain a sense of identity and fulfil the spiritual tasks of the final lap.’
‘If a book may be judged by how many sticky notes are attached while reading it,’ Debbie writes, ‘this one must be good, because mine is beginning to look like a multi-coloured hedgehog there are so many quotable sections and ones to revisit and mull over!’
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