LIFE begins at 40, it used to be said. For many people in Britain today, 60 is the new 40, and a busy economic sector has grown up around retirees with money, fitness, and time. They are the passengers on cruise ships, members of the National Trust, students at adult education classes, and clients of financial advisers.
Although older people tend to be more cautious in their spending habits than the young, the 60-plus generation still contribute millions of “silver pounds” to the economy. Specialised companies have grown their businesses by expertly targeting the cohort. Saga, for instance, which markets exclusively to the over-50s, has 2.7 million customers.
The message being conveyed to the “baby-boomers” with salary-linked pensions, paid-off mortgages, and good health is: enjoy. Yet within the same age group there are others less fortunate. They reach 60 exhausted by life, in poor health, with few assets and little money to show for more than 40 years of worry and toil. They are far more typical of the older people of previous generations, and most of the elderly around the world. They are more likely to die early, and will have little time and no resources to “enjoy” their final years.
The author and community theologian Ann Morisy points out that longevity in the West is largely a middle-class phenomenon, and that ageing is both a political and a gender issue. How long we live depends on our relative affluence. Lives are cut short by poverty. And, statistically, women live longer than men.
Yet, the same essential question applies to both groups, the fortunate and the less fortunate ones: what is the purpose of growing old?
IT IS a question that the Principal of Sarum College, Canon James Woodward, has been exploring over the past 30 years. “It is one of the major moral, spiritual, and social questions of our day, but one about which society has yet to make up its mind. We are living with a paradox. We are experiencing the gift of more years — but we lack an understanding of what they mean.”
It is hard to develop a theology of old age from the New Testament, he says, “as Christianity has always been a young religion. Jesus never saw old age. The Jewish frame of mind relates old age to the seasons. It is a time of harvest: a time to reflect, to grow closer to God, to put things right.”
Louise Morse, the author of What’s Age Got To Do With It?, believes that God designed old age for a purpose. “He created seasons, time, and old age. No one comes into the world as an adult: we go through all the stages, and are then dependent again at the end. His purpose is for everything to be in balance, and the generations in balance.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, we became cut off from the traditional way regarding old age. The cult of youth emphasised attractiveness and activity. There was a change in culture. You reach old age and fall off the cliff; there is nothing there for you. And ageism resulted. The old generation no longer realises that behind old age there is a purpose.
“Instead of contributing as God intended, many see themselves as ‘useless’, and are afraid of being a burden. Ageism has destroyed their self-image and expectations, and they give up and become passive — and we are all the losers.”
Yet, without active retired people being involved in childcare, stepping in to help families where both parents are working, many families would struggle to make ends meet, and many professional and skilled jobs would be unfilled. The wider economy would suffer. Simultaneously, this same demographic is also often caring for their own elderly parents.
MANY voluntary organisations, charity shops, community groups, and churches would collapse without the involvement of older people. The commercial world might encourage the over-60s to spend their money on themselves, but thousands prefer to volunteer their time and energy for the benefit of their communities.
“Older people are the volunteers,” Canon Woodward says. “They keep many churches open and thriving. But older people are more than just people who can do helpful jobs. Old people can get written off as not being part of the future. We need to learn from them the lessons of human experience for the future.”
Harriet and Donald Mowat are the authors of The Freedom Years: Ageing in perspective (BRF). Mrs Mowat is a gerontologist; Mr Mowat a retired GP and consultant psychiatrist. “People think ageing is what happens to other people. No one thinks it’s them, until, suddenly, they realise the old person holding up the bus queue is themselves.”
Author Louise Morse
“Age is a privilege and an opportunity to advance our spiritual selves,” Dr Harriet Mowat says, “and to provide a model of being for younger people. When we are older, we have fewer pressures to succeed, to rush about. Ageing is an opportunity to regain wonder in the world.”
“The stereotype is that old age is a steady decline. Problems do come with age: loss, isolation, and depression. But, often, old age is the best time of a person’s life. They are free from responsibility and being tied to work. Old age is a time of liberation,” Canon Woodward says.
When the time comes, letting go of responsibilities is important, Dr Harriet Mowat says. “Those who had busy professional lives find it difficult to release responsibility. They might decide to work half-time, but then might find themselves undervalued.” Change, however, is likely to bring positives, too.
THE Revd Richard Love is 74; he and his wife, Christine, retired from parish ministry in Kent nine years ago. “Retirement came as a shock,” he recalls, “to find nothing scheduled into the day. I had a lot to learn: we hadn’t even owned a house before.”
But there were freedoms, too. “I could allow myself a drink in the evening, and know that I wouldn’t get a late-night phone call requiring me to drive to see someone.”
Mr Love has found that the freedom of retirement has also provided new opportunities. He has taken up bell-ringing and now runs. “I do a 5k every Thursday, and take up challenges like half marathons. I’m in the local choral society, and enjoy learning about music. I never stop learning. We’ve enjoyed holidays, going to the Holy Land and meeting people of other faiths on visits to Turkey.
“On a Sunday, I am now happiest in the pew, though I keep my hand in by helping out — a bit like a supply teacher. I am not keen on the idea of the Church relying on the retired clergy, with services being taken by doddery elderly clergy struggling to get through.
“I miss being able to go into a church and be there in the silence. I don’t have a church key any longer. I enjoy the presence of God, even in ignorance; for there is so much I don’t understand. I can’t get my brain around things like light years. But I hope I am getting closer to knowing God.
“I read the Bible and see things anew, and think about them without having to rush off and take a service. I look on getting closer to eternity with excitement.”
It was Archbishop Robert Runcie who said, on his retirement, that the older he got “the more and more I believe in less and less”.
“Many older people find their way back to church,” Canon Woodward says. “They might believe in less, but more intensely. There is a greater acceptance of mystery. There is a need for contemplation and silence.”
Physically, there is an enforced slowing down. “Go with it rather than resist,” he says. “Letting go is the biggest challenge. With age comes accepting limitations and realising one’s over-dependence on materialism.”
To live well and age well, we need to think about it in advance, he says. “The mid-50s is the time to ask the question: What am I doing to prepare for the next stage? Let go of unnecessary clutter, material and spiritual,” he advises.
CANON David Winter is 90 this year, and has observed that “the departure lounge is not as bad as it may look in prospect. . . Being old can be fun.”
As he ages, he finds that he believes “more passionately in the reality of God in people’s lives. Of course, there are problems: aches and pains, sluggish memory, failing eyesight, and so on. But there are also enormous compensations in old age, including the freedom to be ourselves without any pressure to achieve, or justify our existence.”
Loneliness, however, is a peril of old age, he notes. But one way of making new contacts, he says, is to go to church. “You don’t have to be religious: it is a place to meet people in a friendly atmosphere.”
The Revd Richard Love and his wife, Christine, enjoy an active retirement
With increased longevity and falling birth rates in most of the world’s developed nations, demographers are anxious that, soon, the age balance will be so skewed towards the older members that societies will face considerable problems in funding care and support for the vulnerable at the end of their days.
”But many people don’t want to live that long,” Ann Morisy says. She predicts that, within seven years, the main moral debate within the Church and society will not concern issues of sexuality, but will be about death and allowing older people the right to choose when to die. “We haven’t begun to think honestly about this, or to explore a range of different models of care at the end.”
The baby-boomers who created the cult of youth in the 1960s are now themselves the old. Some of them are still as active as ever. After heart surgery, Mick Jagger is preparing for a new tour with the Rolling Stones, at the age of 75.
Yet, there is more to a good active old age than simply keeping going as if one was still a teenager. It can be a time for giving to family and community. It can be a time of reflecting on faith, or rediscovering faith at a greater depth. It can be a time of thoughtfully sharing one’s experience with a new generation. And it can be a time of letting go, as Canon Woodward puts it, of material and spiritual clutter.
MESSY Church, bouncy castles in cathedral naves, diocesan youth officers — a top priority for the Church of England is reaching the young. Yet, in practice, in most Anglican congregations on a Sunday, it is grey hair that predominates. And it is on the elderly members that the Church relies for officers and volunteers.
The Church can often be ageist, the Principal of Sarum College, Canon James Woodward, says. “The term ‘elderly’ is such a negative one. We should value old people, but I don’t think we do.”
Louise Morse, the author of What’s Age Got To Do With It, says: “I am horrified that so few churches preach the value of older people. They have empathy and listening skills. They can mentor and encourage.”
“Strategies that bring young people in risk driving older people away,” Canon David Winter, who is 90 this year, notes. There needs to be more thought, work, and emphasis on creating meaningful, interactive intergenerational communities, where young and old are valued and find ways to spend time together.
“At one church I visited, I was taken aside by a lady who said, ‘This is a young church.’ When we go in, we are met by a wall of sound. The church strategy is to reach the young and challenge older people in their comfort zone,” Mrs Morse says.
“A friend was describing how his church ran outreaches for the young. I asked how it reached older people. ‘What would be the point?’, he replied. ‘What would they bring?’ When I pointed out that this was an ageist attitude, he was amazed.”