Later today I shall travel down to London for a small event to mark th epublication of this book. Thanks to my old boss Richard Harries ( now Lord Harries ) the party is to be held in the House of Lords.
Here is a little taste of what I want to share with guests:
How are we to understand later life in the West today? For the first time in human history, most people can expect to live in their seventies in reasonably good health; those over age eighty-five are the fastest growing age group in the population. Perhaps we might conceptualise ageing as a season in search of its purposes.
Between the sixteenth century and third quarter of the twentieth century, western ideas about aging underwent a fundamental transformation, spurred by the development of modern society. Ancient and mediaeval understandings of ageing as a mysterious part of the eternal order of things gradually gave way to the secular, scientific and individualistic tendencies of modernity. Old age was removed from it place as a way station along life’s spiritual journey and redefined as a problem to be solved by science and medicine. By the mid twentieth century, older people were moved to society’s margins and defined primarily as patients or pensioners.
The modernisation of ageing has generated a host of unanswered questions:
· Does ageing have an intrinsic purpose?
· Is there anything really important to be done after children are raised, jobs left, careers completed?
· Is old age the culmination of life?
· Does it contain potential for self completion?
· What are the avenues of spiritual growth in later life?
· What are the roles, rights, and responsibilities of older people?
· What are the particular strengths and virtues of old age?
· Is there such a thing as a good old age?
So I believe that our era offers new opportunities for reclaiming the moral and spiritual dimensions of later life, for bridging the gap between existential mystery and scientific mastery, for reconciling the modern value of individual development with the ancient virtues of accepting natural limits and social responsibilities. Nevertheless, formidable obstacles remain.
When faced with loss, frailty, disease, imminent mortality or dependency, we come up against many barriers dealing with the passage of time, anxiety about growing old; exaggerated stereotypes about old age; denial of death; dreams of physical rejuvenation; feelings of shame or inferiority associated with the loss of independence. These barriers tend to block the experiences of time as flowing; they create a sense of stagnation, of being stuck or frozen. We need to change this. More and more people care coming face to face with an interesting truth. We have met the aged, they are us.
“We who are old know that age is more than a disability;” writes Florida Scoot-Maxwell in The Measure of my days in 1968 then in her early eighties. “It is an intense and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something to be carried high. It is a long defeat; it is also a victory, meaningful for the initiates of time, if not for those who have come less far”. Put in more stoic language, old is not a matter of accumulating years. What is decisive is the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life and the ability to face such realities and to measure them up inwardly.
Perhaps the most interesting finding of recent humanistic and social gerontology is that creativity remains a powerful source of growth, regardless of age. Creativity may be the individual’s most profound response to the limits and uncertainties of existence…indeed the sheer joy and being aliveness in creative activity has its own way of triumphing over the inroads of debilitation and the unrelenting movement of time…. And if every moment of life is a passage, both of becoming and of perishing, then is the creative integration of experience not also demanded of all who would treasure what has gone before and embrace that which is yet to come? Applied to the work of growing old, creativity – which involves affirming life and taking risks –demands continual wrestling with limits amidst changing inner and outer circumstances.
So it’s interesting to see how we might wrestle with some of the themes of ageing – its angels and demons. We should be careful to avoid fixed categories that reinforce the notion of growing old as the pursuit of static abstractions such as wisdom, health, spirituality or retirement. We should also avoid categories based on binary opposites: gain versus loss; health versus disease; work versus retirement; age versus youth; life versus death.
We need to be liberated from this moralistic dualism. Stereotypes blunt the imagination. Conventional wisdom fails to convince. These themes need to be merged and to see the contradictions and paradoxes as we listen carefully to a multiplicity of experiences and aspirations, rather than singular truths about ageing and the human spirit.
What I hope this book might be able to achieve is a small contribution to the imagination of our ageing society. It aims to enhance the reader’s personal search for, and the growing public dialogue about the meanings and purposes of later life. We should encounter many voices across the boundaries of time, race, culture, ethnicity, and gender so that we can find new ways of making sense of our own experience of ageing, and once we’ve done that to appreciate the experience of others.