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Wake up to your age

11 July 2007

The Church and society need to face their denial about old age. They are wasting too much talent, argues James Woodward

‘Old age is our contemporary taboo’

“I believe that we have a duty to take care of those weaker than ourselves.” This statement comes not from the Church, but from Tracey Emin, in a passionate plea to engage in social change (The Independent, 22 June).

Reading this, my thoughts immediately focused on the plight of older people. Government continues to fail to engage with the economic and social challenges of their growing numbers. As the baby-boomers reach pension age and live longer, pressures are increasing to fund services for them.

The Wanless report (Securing Good Care for Older People, King’s Fund, 2006) suggested that spending on personal care for older people in England will need to treble to about £30 billion by the year 2026. By then, the number of people over 85 will have doubled to more than 1.8 million. About one in four of us will need a place in a care home or access to social care at some time.

Only the most robust of us can take in these statistics. We share a collective denial about old age: if sex and death were taboo subjects of the previous centuries, then old age is our contemporary taboo. Our unwillingness to confront our own ageing contributes to the marginalisation of older people. As if ageing, like death, is something that is never going to happen to us, we are careless of the plight of older people — until it is too late.

Some of these issues have been highlighted by Help the Aged in its Spotlight report last month. In this shocking overview, we are reminded of our failure to care. Persistent poverty still exists among older people: 11 per cent of them in the UK are living in severe poverty, and 21 per cent are below the median line of earnings. The average weekly disposable income is £138 for single pensioners.

These are uncomfortable facts, which lead many older people to feel that their quality of life has got worse. Isolation and ageism compound poverty. In the Spotlight report, 13 per cent of the older people questioned said that they were often or always lonely. They also said that they lived in fear of crime, and that their access to shops was limited because of inadequate transport services. These are merely some of the indicators that social care of older people is inadequate.

It is not just a matter of inadequate or misdirected resources. It is a question of attitudes. We live in a country that discriminates against older people: the Spotlight report suggested that 68 per cent of adults agree that, once you reach old age, people tend to treat you like a child. There are many more examples, grounded in shared experience, that demonstrate isolation, poverty, neglect, and ageism.

Listen to Jean: “With ageing, you lose a lot of friends. It’s really sad, and it does affect your quality of life. Loneliness is difficult to cope with. It would be nice to go to somebody’s house for company, or to go out for a cup of tea. You are really on your own, and not many understand.

“I’m not able to socialise because I can only walk a short distance. That means I never cross the doorstep, unless there’s someone with me. The church I belong to is quite a distance away, and unfortunately they don’t come to visit me, which is sad. Facilities are very limited, and bingo is not for me, anyway.”

We are presented with a picture of social care that is under-funded, and older people who feel under-valued. Yet there are also impressions of resilient, optimistic older people, who live uncomplainingly in circumstances that most of us would deem unacceptable. For some, hardship in childhood has lowered their expectations and made them tough.

The challenges that emerge from listening to these older people need to be directed to Government, but also to communities. We need to acknowledge our failure to respond to older people and the opportunities they offer us.

Some churches and Christian organisations have taken valuable initiatives, but much remains to be done.

First, we must take a lead in developing places where older people feel listened to and valued. We should speak out against injustice. We should co-operate with those involved in old-age care and housing to promote appropriate solutions that enhance dignity.

Older people have much to offer the life of our communities. Churches can provide opportunities for them to share and celebrate their gifts. We should recognise that most of our churches are sustained by the voluntary work of older people, and stop apologising for them. We might recover the concept of the family service, which includes all ages acknowledging the spiritual creativity of intergenerational work.

We should support with our prayers those many older carers who sustain frailer members of their families. Older people have time, freedom, experience, perception, memory, understanding, and wisdom: all these are gifts that enrich community. As we look at what makes a healthy church, mission among older people should be as important as its work with the young.

Second, we need to understand how and why our society is so ageist. We need to accept our own ageing, and begin to prepare for it: physically, economically, socially, and spiritually.

We need to set our thinking about our senior years into a broader framework of the successes and failures of social provision. We need to decide what will make ageing fulfilling for us, where we will live, and what level of support we might need. There should be a continued debate about the relationship between personal and public responsibility for funding this care.

We need to ask about the shape of our retirement, and what we can give back to our faith community and our society. It is time to put the Church’s theological and pastoral wisdom to work in enabling us to befriend the elderly stranger in ourselves. Older people deserve better.

The Revd Dr James Woodward is Director of the Leveson Centre for the Study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy in the diocese of Birmingham (www.leveson.org.uk).

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