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Life in the departure lounge

10 January 2014

After he was asked to write a book about getting old, David Winter now in his eighties, was surprised by the thoughts that came to mind in the writing process

THERE was a television series last year, How Not to Get Old. It carefully evaded the ludicrously simple answer (die young), and offered nothing of practical value.

It looked at all the fashionable ways of avoiding the appearanceof ageing (Botox, surgery, hair-weaving, and so on), but kept very quiet about the birth certificate in that private drawer. Like the miles on a car's clock, it tells the truth. Much as we may dislike the idea, if we don't die, then we'll get old. It's as certain as tomorrow's sunrise.

I am old. I refuse to employ any of the popular euphemisms for it - senior citizen, getting on a bit, member of the Third Age, and so on. What is wrong with "old"? Writing a book about being old was partly, at least, a protest at the fact that hardly anyone writing, broadcasting, or legislating about the elderly is actually old. Our problems are analysed, our needs are discussed, and our part in society is determined by people who have never been where we are. It is a bit demeaning to be treated like a sub-species of humanity - needing help and support, of course, but intrinsically different. 

UNTIL modern times, old was a title of respect. "Elders" ran things. The apostle told Timothy not to let anyone despise his youth: old was good, and the older the better (think Methuselah, at 969). If life was a gift of God, then the more you had of it, the better.

The change has taken place within my lifetime. In my childhood, the old were generally respected. However poor the family, the old were secure within it, had a special chair, and shared the food on the table. Children and grandchildren tended to live within easy reach. The support system, albeit creaking at times, owed little to social workers or visiting carers. It wasn't perfect, by any means, but it said that the old were valued and cherished.

Now we are seen more often as a problem. There are, it seems, too many of us. We are "a drag on the economy", the deputy editor of The Economist says. Pension funds,the NHS and National Insurance budgets, and the whole welfare system are under strain, and most of it is our fault.

We bed-block, we take up our GP's time, we inconveniently fall down when the pavement is frozen, we fill the buses on our free passes, and, by the time we have paid our nursing-home bills, there is often nothing left in the pot. We live too long. No one likes to say it, but, simply by refusing to go, we've spoilt things for the next generations.

This isn't simply about money. We may be appreciated as individuals, even loved, but, collectively, we are the problem no one wants to talk about. That, at any rate, is how it sometimes feels. After all, nobody wants to be a "burden".

As a result, and not surprisingly, younger people don't like the idea of getting old. Whereas we move fairly seamlessly through the other phases of life - infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and retirement - the idea of the transition to old age spooks us. The mouthy little girl in Outnumbered asked her grandpa what it was like being old. "Beats being dead" was all he could think of. 

IT WAS this strange paradox - people don't want to die, but they don't want to be old either - that drove me to write the book. It is a view from the inside, as one might say.

I wanted to talk about it positively, not as a problem, but simply as another of the sequences of life, which, like adolescence, parenthood, working years, and retirement, has its problems - but also its joys and possibilities.

Believe it or not, being old can be fun. And just as the child longs to be a teenager, though with a touch of apprehension, so we who are old anticipate the next great life event: our transition to whatever it is that God has in store for us at the end of the day.

Of course, that "whatever" covers a multitude of questions. For some, what lies ahead is indescribably wonderful - a 50-year-old friend of mine texted her best friend an hour or two before she died to say: "Dying is so exciting." Few of us can equal that. But equally few, I discover, view the prospect with alarm or deep anxiety. It's there, it happens to everyone in the end, and something tells us God is love. Meanwhile, we enjoy life in the departure lounge.

I write, of course, from the standpoint of Christian faith: life as gift, and old age as the evening of our pilgrimage. I write, too, as a member of the Christian Church. So it is a bit depressing to find that the view of old age as a "problem" is now infecting my spiritual home. It is as though our leaders had only just noticed that the Church of England is Saga at prayer.

I am just guessing, but I'd be surprised if the average age of our Sunday congregations nationwide was much under 60, and that's allowing for all those churches that have shedloads of young families and teenagers. And so the cry goes up: where have all the youngsters gone?

I am reminded of several seminars I attended in the 1980s at the BBC, where the management of Radio 4 sought answers to a similar dilemma. Why is our audience so old? How can we attract the younger listeners, who constantly choose Radio 1 and Radio 2? The answer, borne to us by the audience researchers, was that we can't, and shouldn't try. The figures showed that, once past 50, plenty of listeners switched to Radio 4. Problem solved.

This may suggest that all the Church has to do is wait until today's young men and women start to think about revising for finals, and then they'll come flooding back to church. It's a nice idea, but the difference is that at least the young audience was listening to the radio. They were familiar with the medium. Our problem is that many, probably most, people under 50 have never had any meaningful engagement with the Church. It's not a matter of coming back, or changing channels, but of making a completely new start in an unfamiliar environment.

This is one of the situations where older worshippers can make a huge contribution. Many of them have grandchildren, godchildren, and young nephews and nieces. A positive and enjoyable experience of church is the very best gift we can give them, even if it is only on the occasional Sunday visit. They may well abandon churchgoing in their teens, but they will hold, one hopes, good memories of church, and, when they become parents themselves, may well want that same experience for their children.

Mind you, this tactic may require the old person to abandon from time to time the familiar comforts of the sung eucharist for the heady delights of the family service, or even Messy Church. In the mean time, the smiling faces of a couple of old people handing out hymn books shouldn't put off casual church visitors. After all, we've all got grandparents, and on the whole we rather like them. 

IT IS that feeling of purpose, of still being useful, that heads my list of ways in which being old can be a positive experience - not so much a problem as a largely untapped resource.

It's not just in church, either. All through life we have felt the need to justify ourselves: at work, at home, and in our social and leisure activities. Now the long struggle is over. We've made it! Relieved of rank, status, and title, we can simply be ourselves. It's a kind of social liberation that can make us better neighbours, friends, and family members.

The old are also relieved of the problem of worrying about the future. All through life, from teenage to retirement, we have found ourselves thinking about what comes next, and how we can plan and prepare for it, whether it is the fulfilment of a dream or the avoidance of a nightmare. Those of us in the departure lounge are spared that stress and anxiety.

Until now, we, too, have always had to make plans. Now we can simply enjoy the present moment. The old really do live one day at a time.

As the head hits the pillow: "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit." After that, it is enough to discover that, in the morning, the radio yet again wakes us to a new day. 

Canon David Winter was formerly head of religious broadcasting for the BBC. His book At the End of the Day: Enjoying life in the departure lounge is published by BRF at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.29).

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