Loving Later Life An Ethics of Ageing
Frits de Lange Eerdmans, 2015, 169 pages, pbk, £12.99
If asked to name one of the urgent ethical priorities for academics and practioners working across a number of sectors it would be to deal with this question ‘what are older people for?’
We are all familiar with the demography – over the past decades we can all expect to live longer and the impact of this is a steady increase in the number of older people. We see the statistics translate into our personal lives as we look around in our neighbourhoods. Older people are a visible part of our communities and, indeed many of us are having to deal with older relatives. To take this further, whatever our birth age, in our own bodies we live with the experience of ageing as the days run into months and years. Ageing takes a variety of shapes in self and others.
In the UK there has been a catastrophic failure of political and economic policy to deal adequately with how we might best organise ourselves to support, affirm and respond to older people. We constantly learn about the inadequacy of health and social care services for older people particularly those facing dementia. Churches seem to demonstrate, at best, a kind of corporate denial about older people but sadly at worst, prejudice and ageism that reinforces the isolation of older people and a deep sense of their marginalisation. Recent commentaries on statistics about church attendance as they relate to the push towards enabling church growth almost all indicate the profile, presence and number of older people in congregations as a problem.
This is the background within which I have read this book. De Lange offers us a very different story which engages with skill and wisdom the shape of growing old. Its distinctiveness lies in his use of theology and ethics and his deeply creative conviction that older people can indeed be beautiful.
The book accepts and articulates some of the many vulnerabilities and fragility will inevitably take shape in old age. There is therefore a realism and groundedness in each of the five chapters. Chapter 1 makes a case for the need for an appropriate ethics for later life. The reader is warned of the dangerous assumptions of individualism and activism as they impact upon the moral shape of relationality, dependence and vulnerability. This leads, in chapter 2, to exploring an ethics of love, grounded in the biblical narrative, and especially the puzzling relationship between self-love and the love of neighbour. We are called not only to care for older people but to attend to our ageing selves. De Lange argues that caring for and about ourselves as we grow older functions as a stepping stone toward love of the older other.
Chapter 3 digs a little more deeply into why we have an inbuilt aversion towards ageing in our natural make up. Older people remind younger people of their own mortality. None of us want to face some of the challenges of change and dependency that take such different shape in old age. Mental decline is a particular fear. These all form part of a kind of terror management strategy that helps silence our fear of decay and death and feeds into ageism.
Chapter 4 asks the reader to say yes to life as we care for our own frailties, befriending our humanity and valuing all seasons of life but especially the final one. This part of the book is shot through with optimism and a real sense of age as opportunity and gift. It is a celebration of the deepest values of dignity and the abundance of life that perhaps only older people can show us.
The final chapter is focused on the love of neighbour as it discusses what it is in older age we can celebrate and see as valuable and beautiful. Some of our shallowness shaped as it is by the prevalent culture of individualism and materialism is laid bare here. There is an ethical imperative, this chapter argues, to move beyond the care of family into the support and encouragement of all older people across our communities. This is a deeply compassionate call to human connectivity and inter-relatedness.
This text is an important contribution to the literature as it suggests that there are many fundamental theological questions about human nature, the nature of life itself, what it might mean to survive and what the future holds for us in terms of hope and purpose posed by the age and ageing agenda. If one of the organising ethical questions of our age is ‘What are older people for?‘ then bound up with this should be the question, ‘What kind of theological questions should we ask?’
The profit motive, the mass media’s love affair with the new, and the anxiety provoked by growing old in a youth obsessed culture has led millions to surrender their faces to the war on wrinkles. We are being asked to unmake what we have spent a life time making. What do we receive in return for this sacrifice? Not youth. Instead we are given, at best, the facsimile of youth. Expressionless, passion, and history are pillages in the pursuit of youth’s fresh blankness. People fear wrinkles because of what they seem to say about us. They are the sum of all our days we have lived and will never live again. They tell us our story even when we do not want that story told. Even the attempt to raise them becomes part of what is written on our faces. We – the doers, the movers, the shakers, the achievers, the rocks of our families and communities – are being written upon. It shocks us to see ourselves, for the first time as paper and not the pen we imagine ourselves to be. Wrinkles are painless and harmless. They are us and we are them. What would it be like to live in a society that adored wrinkles? The idea may seem laughable at first, but for millennia, living to a ripe old age was an exceptional achievement and was often recognised as such by society. All this self induced anguish might serve some purpose if it prodded us towards a re-examination of our longevity. Wrinkles give us a way to begin such a conversation, but it is just a start. Grey hair and facial lines are only the first signs of something much more menacing. Finding a new wrinkle on wrinkles is one thing; plumbing the true nature of our longevity present a much more exciting and demanding challenge.
This playing around with words asks us to imagine growing into an old age defined by full development, maturity, awareness readiness and advancement – this really would be an opportune time. Instead we are mired in a highly negative view of ageing that envisions a one-way trip down the long road towards disease, dementia, disability and death. Peaches but ripen, but human beings, it seems, cannot. Though we are all aware that of the real and often unpleasant changes that come with advancing years, we lack a concept that fully recognises the positive elements of ageing. It is as if our longevity consists solely of deep, forbidding shadows. This emphasis is perhaps the most damaging consequence of contemporary society’s glorification of youth. Those who seek a more complete understanding of longevity, an understanding capable of embracing both light and shadow, conduct their search within a culture that rarely misses an opportunity to emphasise the negative aspect of ageing. The positive dimensions of our longevity remain, for now, present but unseen.
The decline that accompanies ageing is real and important (it helps explain why we die when we get old) but it is much less than the whole story. The danger is that we allow a thoughtless acceptance of what seems obvious to obscure deeper, more meaningful insights into age and ageing. Even though more than half of the normal human life span is spent ageing, we understand very little about the potential of the ageing process. The powers of old age remain too often devalued or outright hidden from us.
De Lange in this carefully written book understands the theological agenda and offers an important start in opening up a theological and ethical dimension of the meaning and shape of age.
The reader is resourced with a detailed index and an interesting and varied bibliography. This text deserves to be widely used and reflected upon. The challenge, as always, for practitioners is to translate the theory into a culture change that can inform social and economic policy that is shaped by a distinctive theological ethic.