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Stories to tell, but who listens?

07 March 2014

Robert Jeffery reads two books about the needs of old age

At the End of the Day: Enjoying life in the departure lounge
David Winter
BRF £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.29 (Use code CT158 )

God, Me and Being Very Old
Keith Albans and Malcolm Johnson, editors
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT158 )

THESE are two very different books about old age, addressed to different audiences.

David Winter, a skilled communicator, both reflecting on his experiences and drawing on biblical passages, has written a book (Feature, 10 January; extracts, Faith, 24 and 31 January, 14 and 21 February) that many people experiencing old age will value. His comments are helpful and practical. He is very good at pointing out the need for old people to mix with younger people, and for the younger to appreciate the old. More primitive societies value their elders much more than we do, and we need to rediscover this.

The other book is more specialised, and will help many who minister to the elderly. Based mainly on the experience of chaplains in Methodist Homes for the Aged, the book begins by criticising the Churches' failure to tackle the needs of the aged more positively. In a valuable essay, James Woodward reminds us that we are all people to be valued, and our stories told and valued. At the centre of the book are 15 personal testimonies by residents in care homes, which show varying experiences both of ageing and of learning and growing in the Christian faith, and how people need to be ministered to.

It is clear that, for some, growing old leads to doubts or uncertainties about faith which they had not felt earlier. These need to be faced and understood with the realisation that, while our understandings may change, the God we put our faith in is present and unchanging. Special care needs to be taken of the growing number with dementia. There is good advice about how to help and share the faith with people suffering bad memory loss. One of the very good things about this book is its large and helpful bibliography. The book should encourage much more research and better care.

As someone who is moving into old age, I found both books helpful, but they also made me critical of much of the lack of care I see around me, and the isolation of many old people. In our self-absorbed, media-conscious, and individualistic world, it is very easy to ignore the old, the housebound, and the isolated. We all need personal relationships to stimulate and encourage us in our living and faith. We need to be willing to hear and value the stories of those we live among. I have been visiting friends in a care home every week for the past ten years, and have been interested to see how people cope in different ways, thus revealing the habit-forming patterns of their earlier lives.

These books do not consider the issues surrounding voluntary euthanasia for those who have no quality of life. This issue will not go away; but learning from people's stories is central to understanding how we care for people. We are all living much longer, and these books help us to face the implications.

The Very Revd Dr Robert Jeffery is Dean Emeritus of Worcester.

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