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Still Growing : The Creative Self in Older Age

Still Growing : The Creative Self in Older Age

Still Growing

The Creative Self in Older Adulthood

Donald Capps

The Lutterworth press 2015, PB 208pp, 9780718893910, £16.50.


This is the most delightful of books in its thoroughness, scholarship and creativity. It has all the potential to transform the readers understanding of the nature of age. In our functional and reductionist world that over values youth, strength and output these seven chapters challenge much negativity around the shape of older age.


Carefully organised into three parts Capps explores some of the questions and opportunities for our transition into older adulthood in chapters 1 and 2. Taking the assumption that older adult hood begins at age 70 this Pastoral theologian uses a blend of his own experience, poetry and scholarship to invite the reader into a richer and more textured view of the complexity of age. It may bring limitation but it also brings wisdom, potentiality and generativity. We are invited to look beyond the immediate and the physical into different expressions of faithfulness and hopefulness. Capps demands positivity and a different frame of understanding for the self in older adulthood.


Part two offers three chapters on the nature of growth and development for older people. Chapter 3 articulates the stages of older adult hood which include the nurture of care, wisdom, gracefulness and endurance. We are reminded of the virtue of wisdom and the necessity for us to have a more meaningful relationship with control and release. Capps (p57 -59) writes and especially insightful reflection on the virtue of endurance .Chapter 4 skilfully articulates the ageing process as forward movement – a process that is described as a continuing development involving many changes. The narrative is grounded and seeks to move us out of a fearful framework of disability into a range of possibilities that enable us to see the gains in ageing. There is no escape from some of the discomforts of ageing but in our embrace of the challenges there is a freedom, a hope and even a serenity. Chapter 5 explores the creativity of older adults and this is described as having or showing imagination or inventiveness. He draws upon the work of Pruyser. Adaptability is explored as an essential quality of creativity.


Part three draws together reflection in a section entitled the artistry of ageing. Chapter 6 captures the essence of this artistry – as Capps explores relaxed bodies, emancipated minds and dominant calm. He invites the reader to consider the creativity of these elements of our embodied existence. In chapter 7 Capps acknowledges the significant mood changes in older adult forward and the opportunities that we all have in expressing our discontent but also bringing our tensions and dissonances into a more creative whole and harmony. Happiness, satisfaction and flourishing form part of this conversation.

The book concludes,

‘perhaps it would be more accurate to say that God created the world – and created us – out of a deep sense of loneliness. And perhaps this means that a similar sense of loneliness in this world that we inhabit is, for us, the underlying inspiration for our own creativity. And maybe it is the older adult who is especially aware that this is so’ (page 175).

The book contains a help for and clear index along with a comprehensive bibliography.

This is an extraordinary countercultural book informed by a passionate embrace of the complexity of human experience alongside a creative theology of vulnerability and human identity. Our faith communities would look and feel very different if we were to begin to practice some of the convictions captured in these seven chapters. It is Pastoral theology at its very best and I challenge anyone to read it and not be transformed by its generativity.


James Woodward

Sarum College and The University of Winchester.





Understanding the Spiritual Shape of Older Age

Understanding the Spiritual Shape of Older Age


The Spiritual Dimension of Ageing 

Elizabeth MacKinlay Jessica Kingsley Publishers  2017  £19.99

With a background in nursing and specialisation in gerontological nursing much of McKinley’s focus over the past years has been on age and spirituality. Her preparation for Ministry nurtured priest and nurse in a commitment to deepening our understanding of the ageing process, its physical and psychosocial needs, and the common disease conditions of older adults. Her body of research work and books have been a fundamental  and important part of the growing literature in our developing understanding of spiritual care.

MacKinley has brought into this commitment her own belief system and managed to hold both Christian conviction within the context of a secular environment in such a way as to demonstrate the core significance of the spiritual as part of enriching human flourishing for all older adults.

The book has 19 chapters with a number of helpful figures and tables illuminating a range of discussions which include the relationship of spirituality to health and well-being; meaning in life; images of God; the spiritual journey in ageing; humour and laughter and spirituality in ageing; isolation; cognitive decline and the nature of professional engagement in this area of support and care.

The second edition of this book is a welcome resource for all of us who are teaching, learning and research. MacKinley puts her learning to use in a meaningful, coherent and insightful way. Those of us who know her work will bear testimony to its capacity to change thinking and practice.

 James Woodward

Sarum College

Living with Dementia :People rarely remember what we said but often don’t forget how we made them feel.

Living with Dementia :People rarely remember what we said but often don’t forget how we made them feel.

First published in the Salisbury Journal 2 February 2017

At Sarum College we are interested in engaging with and reflecting on what makes for human flourishing.

You will have a sense of what it is that helps you to live what inspires your enthusiasm for life.

Being able to remember is one of those dimensions of living that contributes to our flourishing though many of us take this for granted.

As we grow older, memories play a larger part in our lives. There is not much we can do to change the general shape of our story. Perhaps there are fewer things we can expect to achieve than we expected when we were younger. What we have to offer depends much more on the sort of people we are; and the sort of people we are is very much a matter of how we think and feel about the past. So remembering is important. Memories can be a source of courage and comfort and a wellspring of gratitude for all the good things that life has given. This cherishing of the positive can enable hardships to be borne more easily.

Dementia threatens the embrace of memory. The steady progression of memory loss can be devastating. There are currently 850,000 people in the UK living with demen¬tia, and the number is likely to rise to more than two million by 2050. There is no cure. Current treat¬ments alleviate symptoms tempor¬arily, at best.

Until the early 1990s the future for people with dementia was bleak and people with dementia were often not well looked after. This is changing. Human ingenuity, skill and a commitment to supporting voluntary organisations, like the Alzheimer’s Society, have developed an approach to dementia which puts the person at the centre of our focus. In treating a person as an individual and approaching them with the knowledge of who they are (not who they were) flourishing is safeguarded against treatment and attitudes that dehumanise and depersonalise people. The person with dementia should not be seen as deceived, disempowered, childish or perhaps worst of all, someone to ignore. Human flourishing for us all will certainly mean that dignity and growing in wisdom is deepened when we embrace boundedness, limitations and fragility. People living with dementia have much to teach us about our flourishing.

It is likely that all of us know someone who is adjusting to memory loss or indeed living with significant dementia. Keeping in touch, offering a hand of care, understanding, and supporting local charities which help sustain this work can make an enormous difference.

People rarely remember what we said but often don’t forget how we made them feel. What can you do to contribute to human flourishing of all those living and working in this City of ours?

Dr James Woodward
Sarum College

Jim Birren

Jim Birren




One of the towering figures in gerontology has died : James E. Birren, founding

Director of the Andrus Gerontology Center, at the University of Southern California,

died at the age of 97.  His achievements were extraordinary   Foremost among these,

is creation of the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, as well as the Leonard Davis

School of Gerontology.  His books and other publications are extensive, and many

distinguished gerontologists have been  nurtured by Jim Birren.  To get just a glimpse of

these, visit:


Jim Birren, then in his late sixties, was only getting started. His 30-year

retirement would witness pioneering work in areas far removed from the behavioral

psychology in which he began his own academic work in the 1940s.  Like a small

number of distinguished psychologists (e.g., Jerome Bruner and Leon Festinger),

Birren would “go boldly where no one has gone before” toward the in-depth

exploration of wisdom, autobiography, and the search for meaning.  His generativity

didn’t stop with his retirement nor will it stop now that he has left our world.  Instead,

we are all inheritors of the vision of “positive aging” that he has left behind.

This is the book that has been hugely influential in my own thinking about old age


For more on guided autobiography, visit:

The Quest for meaning in later life

The Quest for meaning in later life

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P. G. Coleman, D. Koleva and J. Bornat, eds., Ageing, Ritual and Social

Change: Comparing the Secular and Religious in Eastern and Western

Europe. Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. Pp. xviii,

283. Pb. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-4094-5215-7.

This volume is a compelling and authoritative contribution to the literature

that seeks to understand our quest for meaning in later life. The twelve

essays, carefully organised and edited, make a significant contribution to

our understanding of the nature of ageing in human society and within

two different areas of Europe. The technical nature of this writing may

make the book over-specialised for the general reader, but its findings

have significant implications for our understanding of religion and its

practices in Europe today.


In a variety of ways, we are asked to consider whether and in what

way religion might contribute to our well-being, particularly in old age.

We are encouraged to reflect on this intriguing question by a rich variety

of shared narratives that offer the reader insight into the ways in which

value and belief enable individuals and communities to live through

the physical processes of ageing. These discussions are contextualised

within the experience of rapid social change across Europe. A distinctive

feature of this book is that it offers a dialogue between the increasingly

secular culture of the UK and the more traditional religious communities

of former socialist countries where religion has a very different place

in family and community. We learn in these narratives of the essential

and existential support that religion provides to enable people to cope

with social loss and physical frailty. A picture emerges of how older

people play a role in the holding together of religious communities and

in transmitting the Christian faith to younger generations. As the interrelationship

between ageing, ritual and social change is examined, we note

the profound value of older people in religious communities and see how

religion can contribute to a good old age.

The book is organised into five sections. Section One offers a

background which includes an overview of ageing and ritual in Europe;

and a discussion of the methods of investigation and in particular oral

history. The largest section of the book (chapters 3–6) provides an analysis

of the major questions which underlie the research project behind the

book; the emergence of religiosity and non-religiosity in people’s lives;

personal explanations for engagement in ritual practice; and continuing

commitment to religious ritual in otherwise non-religious people. The

next two sections examine the role of religion in enabling adjustment to

ageing. This includes a focus on death and bereavement. The final section

of the book offers a discussion on what conclusions can be drawn from

the project. Throughout the book, there is meticulous documentation of

sources with a helpful set of appendices, bibliography and index.

Why, then, should the general reader of theology take notice of this?

In addressing issues of numerical decline, the Church often laments in

having to inhabit a demography of an ageing Church. It may follow that

many of our strategies (and the theologies that support them) promote

implicit and explicit ageism. This is serious for our understanding of age,

for older people and for our attitudes to them. This book and its findings

show us that it might be possible to hold together some inter-generational

equity whereby we might counteract negative stereotypes and the

marginalisation of our ageing congregations. Older people may be our

natural spiritual constituency and a vital part of sustaining the religious

and spiritual life of our communities.


James Woodward

Looking your Age??

Looking your Age??




Last month my wife and I were on a Road Scholar trip in Europe and we were having dinner with a Japanese woman.  We got to talking about age and she asked how old I was. “Seventy” I replied, thinking of Gloria Steinem’s apt phrase, “This is how 70 looks.”  Our dinner partner said to me, “No!  You don’t look 70 at all,” and I instantly felt a tinge of pride at my good health, appearance, and vitality.  Then she quickly added, “But then, Caucasians never do look their age.” I instantly felt an encounter with reality.


The incident reminded me of the time I turned 65 and had my first chance to get the senior discount at a museum.  As I went up to the cashier I fumbled for my driver’s license, expecting to be “carded” to prove my eligibility.  Before I could reach into my pocket, the cashier said, “Don’t bother.  You clearly qualify.” Once again, “reality therapy” for gerontologists,          How do I do Morris, who used to tell me “I feel like I’m 18 inside.”


The truth is doctors get sick, funeral directors die, and gerontologists grow old.  I once convened the first symposium on plastic surgery at a gerontological conference: “Face Lifts and Tummy Tucks in an Aging Society.”  It was also the last symposium of its kind.  Some topics in aging we just want to avoid.  I get the impression that many of us in the “field of aging” don’t want to talk much about our own attitudes toward what it means to look, or to feel, our age.  It’s a conversation we ought to be having.


See “This Is What 80 Looks Like” at:
HR Moody