Age as opportunity


Anne Forbes, who is Director of the Catholic Agency for Social Concern, looks at the demographic patterns which are changing the balance between old and young in our society. She suggests some ways we can establish a 'solidarity between generations' and deal with the principal challenge which is the 'social integration of older people'.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris is adorned at present with very large illuminated figures indicating the number of days left until 1 January 2000. At the time of writing the number must be around 450. In much of the secular publicity surrounding the millennium the emphasis is on newness, on forward planning for the twenty-first century, on what are hoped will be imaginative extravaganzas to remain in the memory of those who visit them, especially children and young people.

What is usually overlooked are the demographic changes which the new century will bring. The main characteristic of these is the growing number of older people, their increasing share in the total population of the UK and the corresponding decline in the number and percentage of young people.

Population trends
At present there are over 9 million people aged 65+ in the United Kingdom. When those aged 60-64 are added to this number, people of pensionable age represent almost 20% of the total population, i.e. one person in five. What is more this percentage share is likely to increase during the next century and will be over 25% by the year 2040.

There is a corresponding decline in the percentage share of young people. In 1995 young people aged 0-19 accounted for 25% of the population but it is predicted that this will decline to 21% in 2040, a figure lower than that for the 65+ age group. In thirty years' time it is likely that there will be more older people than young people aged under 20. p>There is a corresponding decline in the percentage share of young people. In 1995 young people aged 0-19 accounted for 25% of the population but it is predicted that this will decline to 21% in 2040, a figure lower than that for the 65+ age group. In thirty years' time it is likely that there will be more older people than young people aged under 20.

So what are the implications of this changing balance in the population, and how can the interests of the two groups, let alone those in the middle, be reconciled and a 'solidarity between generations', as the French express it, established? This solidarity is vital, but the principal problem is the social integration of older people.

Four ages
First of all, some clarifications. Whom exactly do we mean by 'older people'? There are various definitions but the one most popular with gerontologists is the concept of the Four Ages. Briefly this sees life divided into:

First Age: childhood

Second Age: Younger adulthood: settling down, family responsibilities, paid work (where possible)

Third Age: a period of active independent life beyond child-rearing and employment. This may last for 30 years or more.

Fourth Age: the age of dependence and frailty, hopefully much shorter than the Third Age.

Older people are considered to be those in both the Third and the Fourth Age. Three-quarters of them are in the Third Age and are the ones who play a prominent part in community and family life, providing most of the care for frail, dependent Fourth Agers. Chronology can confuse the issue: some Third Age people are in their 80s or even 90s, whereas frailty can occur at an earlier age, as some know only too well. However, contrary to popular opinion, many older people lead constructive, contented lives, with the Third Age as the Golden Era.1 Indeed the poet Longfellow wrote

Age is opportunity no less than youth itself, Though in another dress; And as the evening twilight fades away The sky is filled with stars invisible by day.

The vocation of later life
Whether or not these extra years are the happiest of a lifetime, what is apparent is that God is giving longer life to increasing numbers of people throughout the world. But is this increase always a blessing, as Psalm 128 indicates:

May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you rejoice in the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. And may you live to see your children's children

or will it be a burden? Are there lessons in Christian discipleship which those who are younger can learn from those who have reached a later stage in life's journey? Maggie Kuhn, a leader of the Grey Panthers Group in the United States, wrote that,

It might just be one of God's surprises for us that He may use those closest to death, nearer to that other life, to show the Church how to break with self-centered purposes and goals, and look to the good of all and serve God.2

In scripture there are examples of older people being chosen as prophets or as models of righteous living. We are told in the book of Genesis (12:4) that Abraham was advanced in years when he was asked to let go of his country, his relatives and his father's home to go with Sarah and Lot to the land of Canaan. Zechariah and Elizabeth were both old and surprised when their son John the Baptist was born (Luke 1:5-23). And it was two very elderly, devout worshippers in the temple, Simeon and Anna, who were the first people to recognise that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 2:25-38). What is apparent is that increasing numbers of people are being 'called to be old'3 and that, perhaps unknown to themselves, many people have a vocation for later life. As a recent report from the United Reformed Church expressed it:

God did not make us for eternal youth but God made us to age and to die. Ageing is part of what God intends for us. It is something good and part of us, not a tragedy to be avoided, but a blessing.4

The goodness can manifest itself in many ways: in the generosity of service which is shown by so many Third Age people who provide the core of the volunteering movement in the UK, who organise the charity shops, drive their neighbours to hospital, share their executive skills with community groups, and maintain the justice and peace and CAFOD groups in their parishes. The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) alone has over 17,000 members, the majority of whom are Third Agers and who between them made over one million house visits in 1996/7.

At a deeper level these are the people who are starting to experience the losses which are so characteristic of later life and which may cloud the Golden Era image. However, their model of discipleship in response to these losses can be of immense value to those who are younger. These losses take different forms: the loss of a spouse, of close friends, of health and of involvement in the wider community. For many people later life becomes a time for letting go and adjusting to new roles and attitudes. In Losses in Later Life: a New Way of Walking with God, R. Scott Sullender writes:

The call of later life is to develop 'a new way of walking with God' by avoiding the temptation to make idols out of the past and to grieve the losses that are now coming upon us with increased rapidity. This grieving process is essential if we hope to find the new identities and spiritual meanings that are hidden from us earlier in our lifespan.5

Statements such as this challenge the existing negative stereotypes of older people by helping to place the difficulties of this stage of life, as well as its joys, into the context of a search for meaning and an opportunity to come closer to God. As the theologian Karl Rahner expressed it at the age of 80: The real high point of my life is still to come. I mean the abyss of the mystery of God, into which one lets oneself fall in complete confidence of being caught up by God's love and mercy forever.6

Practical implications
However, even if Christians welcome the fact that God is granting longer life to so many people, there are practical implications which need to be faced by society and by the Churches.

In practice older people are as varied in their lifestyle, income and family circumstances as the rest of the population. Some people are well-off whereas over 3 million of the 10 million older people are on or are entitled to receive income support. The situation of poorer older people in terms of justice is one of the two key issues to be highlighted here; the second being the challenge of establishing real solidarity between the generations.

Poverty in later life
Issues of concern to poorer older people are well documented, starting with inadequate pensions. At present the weekly rate for a single person is £64.70 and that for a married couple is £103.40. Particularly for single people it is impossible to live on these rates unless they are supplemented by savings or by a second pension. The current debate about the future of welfare provision in the UK and the recent Green Paper on Welfare Reform do not give the impression that generous increases are envisaged. This is in contrast to the Republic of Ireland where pensioners are offered some free electricity, a free television licence, free telephone rental, and free bus/train travel. Added to these Ireland has a higher level of basic pension.

Other issues of concern to pensioners include the availability of appropriate and safe housing, better public transport, proximity to the shops, and suitable health care. Again the wide variation in the situation of pensioners is significant: those whose income is high enough to enable them to afford taxis are obviously not so concerned about the provision of adequate public transport. What must be said, however, is that these concerns affect women more often than men, partly because of their longer life expectancy but also because of their frequently unsatisfactory pension situation.

One issue of significance to almost all older people is the cost of long-term care for those who are frail and dependent. It is to be hoped that the recently announced Royal Commission will arrive at some constructive and just proposals. This issue is amongst the range of topics included in the current Millennium Debate of the Age, sponsored by Age Concern England, which has been launched to ensure that these vital but often overlooked issues are given a higher public profile. Hopefully there will eventually be an older people's lobbying group who ensure that their voice and needs are acknowledged, as happens in the United States.

Solidarity between generations
The second issue, solidarity between generations, has gained a higher profile in recent years, with encouragement from various European networks funded by the EU. One network has expressed its vision as follows:

Two significant challenges confront policy makers, of which one is the increasing number of older people who, though able and healthy, are no longer part of the work force. At the other end of the spectrum are children and young people who are experiencing problems and difficulties, for example, depression and drug culture, never anticipated by earlier generations.

Inter-generational programmes represent a cost-effective way of mobilising human resources, providing opportunities for both young and old to find meaning in their lives, fostering cross-cultural and cross-age understanding. They can serve as a vehicle for civic education and for strengthening the sense of being part of a common enterprise

Historically, families have been the major source of support for both older and younger members. Now geographic mobility, the high divorce rate, the massive re-entry of women into the workforce and the increasing number of single parents, have made it difficult to count solely on the family to meet the needs of their dependent members. By creating inter-generational child-care programmes or using older adults to provide support to young parents, it may be possible to help to build the capacity of families to cope better. Evident in many European contacts is a growing appreciation that service provides opportunities for engagement, activity, friendship and growth ... increasing numbers of adults throughout Europe are developing a new understanding of the needs of youth. Young people need to feel that their lives have meaning. They need to be exposed to individuals who have a personal sense of the entire life-cycle, who can help them to put their lives into perspective. Hence the potential impact of the old on the young.7

Projects such as Age Link, established by FARA (Federation of Active Retirements Associations) in Dublin, SHARE (Students Harness Aid for the Relief of the Elderly) in Cork, the Beth Johnson Foundation, Stoke on Trent, or Tikob Familiehus, Denmark, are examples of this vision in action. Other examples of older people acting as mentors to younger people, foster grandparenting schemes, as well as many local history projects are illustrations of the same approach.

Implications for the Church
Much could be written about this but four aspects stand out. Firstly, the need for the Church to stop apologising for the ageing of its church-going population. In most parishes the majority of the congregation belongs to the Third Age. There are serious issues to be addressed concerning the Church's relationship with younger people, discussed elsewhere in this journal, but we are all equal in the sight of God and older people should not be made to feel that they are second best.

Secondly, there are many practical ways in which the talents of Third Age people can be used by the local or national Church, and indeed many are. Sometimes it would be even better if they were given the real responsibility which their professional and life experiences warrant.

Thirdly, as the average age of congregations is rising, some parishioners may be interested in exploring liturgies appropriate to the later stages of their faith journey. These liturgies are obviously in addition to, not instead of, community worship, such as the Sunday Mass. Groups such as the Ascent movement, established over 40 years ago in France by the lay man Andre d'Humieres to encourage spiritual development, service and friendship in later life, have a particular contribution to make, as does the ecumenical Christian Council on Ageing.8

Some people find the exploration of reminiscence or the undertaking of a Life Review helpful in a faith context. As one writer expressed it:

While my memory functions I see the importance of stepping back into the past. In part this is to treasure the happy times but also in order to meet with the people I have hurt or damaged and to ask for forgiveness. I relive those events in the light of all my subsequent experience and then, being able to die to that past, I ask for peace with myself, with others and with God.9

Fourthly, the current debate about long-term care, its form and its funding, could be the stimulus for some creative thinking about new ways in which care can be provided for frail older people in a faith setting. Certain religious congregations continue to offer residential and nursing facilities, but these are not available in all parts of the country; nor in today's climate of care in the community are they always the appropriate choice. How as a Church do we wish to care for the increasing number of our older members who have dementia, or some other illness which requires prolonged care? How do we support their carers who are members of our parishes? How can our faith help us to make sense of medical conditions which some in the secular world consider a sufficient reason to bring life to a close?

These are some of the challenges and opportunities which the millennium presents. They call for new thinking and responses about later life in all its stages, much of it running counter to our current culture. As Pope John Paul II wrote in 1982:

Do not neglect your sick and elderly. Do not push them to the margins of society, for if you do, you will fail to understand that they represent an important truth. The sick, the elderly, the handicapped and the dying teach us that weakness is a creative part of human living, and that suffering can be embraced with no loss of dignity.

Without the presence of these people in your midst you might be tempted to think of health, strength and power as the only important values to be pursued in life. But the wisdom of Christ and the power of Christ are to be seen in the weakness of those who share his suffering.

l January 1999 is the beginning of the UN International Year of Older People. Maybe it isn't necessary to wait for the millennium for the new thinking to start.

1.Paul Thompson et al., I Don't Feel Old: The Experiences of Later Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
2.William B. Clements, Theology and Aging (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
3.Faith in Elderly People Project, Called to be Old (Leeds/ Bradford, 1991).
4.Nigel Appelton, Respecting the Gift of Years: A Report to the Church & Society Committee of the United Reformed Church. (January 1998).
5.Integration Books, 1989.
6.Melvin A. Kimble, Susan H. McFadden, James W. Ellor, James J Seeber, eds, Aging, Spirituality and Religion: A Handbook. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1995).
7.Tony Flynn, ed., Solidarity between Generations: An Innovative European Approach (European Union, 1995).
8.Contact addresses:
Ascent Movement, National Secretary, 44 Edgeworth Close, Hendon, London NW4 4HN. Christian Council on Ageing, c/o Methodist Homes for the Aged, Epworth House, Stuart St, Derby DE1 2EQ.
9.Faith in Elderly People Project, op. cit.

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