I’m interested in old age, not just because I’m getting older myself (as we all are) but also because I work with a small charity called Faith in Older People. The name could be understood in two ways. Taking faith to mean confidence and trust, it could suggest that the charity has confidence in the possibilities of older people and their positive contribution to society, even if this is in small and hidden ways. It could also indicate a concern for the faith of older people and this is the focus of its activities, though it sees faith not in terms of dogmatic truths but in terms of spiritual growth and personal well-being. It tries to encourage good practice in care homes and in communities so that everyone is treated with respect and helped cope with the frailties and changes that inevitably come with old age, recognising that personal and inner growth is still possible.
Old age is a gift not given to all of us and it’s something to be prepared for – not in the sense of becoming old before our time but by living each age and stage of our lives to the full, being open to the lessons each stage brings with its pains and its joys and integrating these into our lives as we move on from one age to another. I like Thomas Moore’s idea that we should think in terms of ageing rather than old age. In his latest book The Ageless Soul, he explores the concept of ageing which begins the very moment we are born and is the process by which we become someone real and alive. It’s a journey moving towards fulfilment and maturity. It is in his words “a fulfilment of who we are, not a wearing out”.
One of his main points is that ageing happens and that “our task is to be is to be there for the ageing no matter how it shows itself, rather than fight it. Fighting anything makes it look worse than it is. The first rule in dealing with ageing is to be with what is, even when it’s bad. We have to be with what is, not what we wish the situation to be”. How countercultural is this when so many people in western society put so much energy, time and money into looking younger. I have some friends who are committed to a sturdy course of exercise in the hope of staving off old age. But that won’t happen. Ageing happens whether we like it or not and we need to embrace it while keeping healthy and active of course. Then there are the supergrans, often portrayed on television, who can run marathons at 90 and likely to make most of us feel inadequate. It’s as though we’re failures if we don’t live up to that.
There are a lot of books being written about old age. A place in Japan that seems to have captured the interest of a number of authors writing about old age is Okinawa which has more centenarians than anywhere else in the world. The population follows a healthy diet but that doesn’t seem to be the secret of their long life. Rather it’s a development of ikagai, a Japanese word which means having and living a purpose in life, a reason for getting up in the morning. It’s more to do with one’s inner spirit than physical being – Thomas Moore’s ageless soul perhaps. For many people their purpose in life is work but there has to be a higher purpose so that when work goes life does not become meaningless.
Those who have sought to research the secret of old age come up with very similar ideas of what makes for good ageing. To stay active is important, to eat healthily and well too but so too is this sense of meaning in life, a social group where one is accepted and supported, an ability to face the past and present challenges in life and opportunities to be still and even to meditate – all to be found within religion. Religion offers meaning and a sense of purpose, it brings people together and supports them in community, it offers opportunity for service and an awareness of those less fortunate than themselves and gives a practice to help deepen their understanding of self. All this is good for the ageing process no matter what age we are. But people don’t see it or recognise it. It’s as though they cannot get behind some of the religious language to recognise the human good at the heart of it. And this goes for religious people as well as the non-religious. I often think it would do religion good to talk more on the human level than the divine. In this sense it needs a conversion away from religion to the human and make a valuable contribution to ageing well.