The Ageing Journey and Its Spiritual Tasks
This paper is going to focus on the ageing journey and some of the spiritual tasks that might articulate that journey. If we are to provide support for each other as we age and ifthis support is to be spiritual as well as psycho- social and physical then reflection upon the meaning of ageing and the opportunities for spiritual growth and development that it offers,is required. This gives us not only an opportunity to think about our own ageing and lay down some preparations for it, but gives us a blue print – a way of caring – for older people which is compassionate and realistic rather than mawkish and objectifying.
This is the first time I have presented at an online conference. I have rightly or wrongly,stuck to a “spoken” style of presentation.I have not included references or a bibliography, which can be supplied if required. I am hoping for some stimulating e questions and responses.
I will start with some comments about our common approaches to ageing.
Our mixed and confused approach to ageing
A common approach to ageing is to see it as something that happens to other people. Our definitions of age and an ageing society neatly avoid the obvious truth that we are all ageing. In our efforts to stave off the labels of ageing, and thus its fears,which we intuitively know will discriminate and disadvantage us, we try to locate ourselves as not ageing, no matter how complicated this process becomes, as we do in reality age. We tend to view ageing as an alternative and undesirable state into which we, ourselves,have not yet sunk. By definition those who we define as ageing we identify as different from us. Hence our social policy and health care policy designates aged people into discrete categories – witnessed for instanceby adult psychiatry and old age psychiatry. The cut off point for referral to adult psychiatry is 65years old . The often unseemly scramble to unload over 65’s onto the old age lists speaks for itself.The illness and relationship with clinician is abandoned in favour of age designated problems. Similarly we are still wrestling with the idea that there should be a flexible retirement age. Our approach to retirement is a mixture ofhorror,desperation and longing. We express envy at those who have so much time and yet we affirm our place in society by confirming that we are fully occupied. Even those who have retired tell us that they have never been busier. Busyness is an important value that we aspire to and that we see as laden with positive attribute. Try saying to colleagues at work that you are not busy and that you have plenty of time to attend to the tasks before you. This sets up some interesting responses both explicit and hidden about ourown worth.
Our confusions deepen about ageing as we approach different transitional stages in our lives. The death of parents is always a significant moment for instance. This event marks our own final and irreversible transition into adulthood.Ill health is inevitably a time of taking stock and reviewing our lives. Theologicans would argue in some quarters that ill health and other “crises” that disrupt the usual flow of life routines are the opportunities given to us to review and adjust. Ill health is the obvious example of disruption to normal everyday life. Planned or unplanned a visit to hospital unsettles us. We see around us others who are “worse” off, and we see before us, laid out to some extent , our potential futures. We are alerted to the truth of our own mortality. But it is not just this rather mechanical change, but the meaning that it gives to our lives subsequently that affects us.
Our confusions about old age extend beyond the odd morbid thought, to a range of societal institutions which reflect these individual neuroses. The old age home is another example. The societal effort to reduce the evil effects of institutionalisation which are as Richard Clough once wrote “not pretty”, have resulted in social policy of community care underpinned no doubt by good intentions to make life easier for older people. Nevertheless it also operates as an attempt to hide and disperse the vision of ageing. We don’t want to go into such institutions , we don’t want our parents in there and we don’t like the idea of it. Instead however of facing up to the realities of loneliness and need and dealing with the importance of co dependence and thinking about the importance of community to our wellbeing , we castigate the poor care , and demonise the carers and relegate old age caring to a second class cinderalla occupation which in the UK is carried out by uneducated, and often immigrant workers.
In psychodynamic terms, borrowing looselyfrom Melanie Klien, we find it difficult to accept ageing in ourselves so we tend to project it on to others.We don’t want to admit to our ageing, finding it fearsome, and so we objectify ageing. We remain in the paranoid schizoid position where ageing is other and nothing to do with ourselves. We find it difficult to accept ourselves as ageing people. This is reflected in ourchurch life. We talk about the importance of caring for our older congregation, we admit to ageing congregations and we talk about ministry to elderly people. But we don’t really mean it. We don’t think this means us. We have not taken on ageing as a difficult truth which applies to us.There are parallels here with mental health. Those of us who have not experienced mental health problems do not associate our selves with those who have. Age (and mental illness) is another country, another person.
One very unhelpful but deeply popular way of approaching ageing is to try and stop it. This is the dominant method that we see reflected in our media and heard in our everyday taken for granted attitudes. An obvious example of this is the effort on the part of women to reduce their wrinkles and lines and maintain youthful bodies. Secretly I suspect we all yearn to have more beautiful bodies. At the moment, in this particular turn, we are very focussed on good diet and exercise and on the obesity “problem” that faces us as a nation. We know that if we keep lighter we are less likely to fall, become diabetic, have joint problems and hip and knee replacements,less heart disease, less back pain. We will feel better about ourselves, our self esteem will increase and we will take our place in a society which welcomes us as good and trusty servants. Those of us who breech these cultural aspirations (and this is most of us) either engage in a vigorous counter cultural fury about the inconsistencies of the research and how we can’t be sure that wine is good or bad for you or chocolate is good or bad for you , or we feel diminished and difficult about our obvious transgressions of these norms. This is the case for people of any age.
The reason that our ageing services are still poorly resourced, that our television programmes are still aimed at gloryifying youth and beauty, that our social and health care policies still distinguish ageing from “not ageing”is that we have not really taken on the realities of ageing and its real meaning. We may speak the language, we may act the part but in our hearts we are frightened to death of the implication and the reality that ageing leads to death. The only people who aren’t apparently alarmed by this are the very aged themselves who have made that transition into what Margaret Erikson, borrowing from Tornstraum has termed gerotranscendence.
Death as the last taboo
On the face of it the Christian view of death should be one of welcome relief. The approach of death heralds the dawn of a new relationship with God which allows us to move to a different position and understand face to face as St Paul famously wrote.Our deep and lasting sadness’s over the death of loved ones and even known strangers which increases as our multi media global access increases, are transformed into a longing to be with Christ and to understand in retrospect the meaning. And yet it is obvious that even with that glorious prospect we cannot quite throw off our fear of the unknown and the dreadful sense of loss and terror that surrounds usin the face of death. This contradictory and paradoxical behaviour is part of the process and certainly part of the journey of faith into old age. We have to try and find meaning despite our hurts and fears and transcend the terror of death so that our earthly lives are lived as fully as possible.In engaging with our inevitable death we can free ourselves to enjoy and engage with our immediate daily lives. Butits not easy.
Christopher Jamieson writes at the beginning of his recent book on Finding Happiness that the starting point is to prepare for and imagine a “happy death”. By this he means that as we journey into old age we must have in mind the inevitable end point. By imaging and preparing ourselves for this we can make the most of our time in the present. He evokes St Benedicts injunction to keep death daily before our eyes. In doing so we are able to live more fully in life.
Living life fully: The spiritual journey
One of the other insights that Jamieson helps us think through is the idea of acedia. This is essentially spiritual carelessness. He is speaking in the particular context of sin and from a Christian perspective – he writes as the Abbot of Worth Abbey, a Benedictine Monastry. However the idea of spiritual carelessness is I belief, helpful in thinking about what we mean by the spiritual journey.
We tend to use the idea of life journey and spiritual journey interchangeably. This is where I think the confusion lies and certainly is a confusion that I have contributed to. However further thought has prompted me to suggest that the chronological journey of life, upon which we all embark like it or not, includes a philosophical and existential journey andaspiritual journey. I would want to argue that it is spiritually careless to conceptualise these journeys as one. In the past I have argued that ageing is a spiritual journey whether or not we acknowledge it. I now would refine that to argue that ageing is an inevitable journey accompanied by existential and spiritual companions which may or may not be bidden but are always available.
A religious understanding of spirituality, from any religious point of view is that spirituality and therefore the spiritual journey is the search for the love of God. The tasks of ageing help us with that search. They may also help us with our existential or philosophical search for meaning. But here I distinguish clearly between the two. I find myself moving on from theidea of spirituality as encompassing all faiths and none and want to now make a distinction between spirituality and existential enquiry. The one does not preclude the other but it seems that secular spirituality which is promoted by our major institutions particularly our health services as part of our holistic needs is not infact spirituality. This is in actual fact a need to acknowledge that people have needs to locate themselves and understand themselves as meaningful. Spirituality is specifically about the serach for a relationship with God. If we allow for this we can understand the spiritual tasks of ageing as distinct from the existential tasks of life.
Our life journey with its ageing transitions from birth to death is described brilliantly by Thomas Cole. Here we can see that the idea of journey through stages of life is helpful and accurate and it reflects our relatively timeless humanexperience ofageing transitions and their effect upon us. This in itself is not spiritual. It becomes spiritual when these life events prompt us to contemplate and engage in the spiritual. By the spiritual I mean specifically the search for the love of God. This seems to be the real definition of spirituality which is in danger of becoming so wide and all embracing as to become meaningless. I would argue that secular spirituality (a concept for which there is much support), is a contradiction in terms.
The enquiry and reflection about meaning of our ageing journey is not necessarily a spiritual enquiry. It is only when we take the step to see meaning located in the love of God that we embark on our spiritual journey. Existential and philosophical realms of enquiry about our situations arenot the same as our spiritual journey however.The pilgrims spiritual journey is again described famously by Bunyon. In this journey Christian may be ageing but the point is not the ageing but the spiritual growth and challenges. Ageing gives us the chance to take this journey consciously and perhaps prompts us into it, but you don’t have to be old to go on a spiritualjourney and you aren’t necessarily doing a spiritual journey by ageing. But the opportunity is there.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t support people who are going through their existential enquiry , indeed we should as fellow humans respond to these groanings. We all have them articulated in different ways. But to call them spiritual is to degrade the actual spiritual journey , to be spiritually careless and undisciplined. The spiritual journeyis a distinctive and recognisable effort to love God.
How can we reunite with the realities of ageing
One way of trying to alter our perceptions of ageing is to learn more about it and to reflect on our own ageing process, no matter where we are in that process. This involves laying down the conditions for our old age and putting in place the thinking and attitudes that we need both to support ourselves and others.
We are helped in this by various thinkers who have considered the tasks of ageing as part of the spiritual journey, these include Elizabeth Mackinlay, Teilard de Chardin,Andre Matthieu and Albert Jewell as examples.In particular the work of Jung as a Christian Psychiatrist has given us the basis for ageing “praxis” and care.
Jung gives us some guidance as to how to tackle the second half of life.Jung proposes 7 tasks of ageing which start to have some serious relevance in the mid life. Jung thought that the serious business of life starts in middle age and involves a developing knowledge of self. If we are serious about supporting each other we will provide the mechanisms by which these processes can best be carried out.
Tasks of ageing and their links to the spiritual journey
We are helped in these efforts by considering the ageing tasks that Jung proposes and examining them for their spiritual content. There are parallels with the idea of successful ageing and the idea of resilience in old age that we can draw on as we consider each task.
In a recent conference run by FIOP (Faith in Older People) Iasked two workshop groups to contemplate these tasks and discuss their usefulness in the light of the spiritual journey, the journey towards the love of God. I have incorporated their comments into the final part of this presentation.
Face the reality of age and death:
This is truly difficult for us in our western society. We have built up a defence against death which I have already alluded to above. Our needs to remove death from the normal and our concurrent move away from a religious understanding of life and death has dealt a blow to normalising and accepting death. In the Christian tradition death is the beginning of something new and eternal. It is the ultimate opportunity to “move “on”. It is interesting that the characteristics of resilience both applied to individuals and organisations, includes in it the ability to face reality. The resilient organisation has a very clear grasp of reality and acts accordingly, the resilient personality is one that includes a facing up to reality. The irony of reality TV a common currency now, is that it is anything but realistic and fans the fantasiesof it seems millions of people. So even our understanding of the idea of reality is becoming unreal. In the major faithtraditionsreality is the love of Godand the transformation of life through death to eternity. But it’s hard to keep a hold of that in the day to day world in which we operate. Older people tend to be quite resilient.
Albert Jewell has recently completed a Phd looking at the characteristics of resilience in 500 methodists between the age of 60 and 94. He found that there were strong associations with resilience (defined as the ability to re shape after distortion) in old ageterms of introverted (sic)personality,in terms of those older people who had grappled with Eriksons last three stages of generativity, reconciliation and gerotranscendence , with thoseo who had the capcity for relfection on their lives and those who demonstrated an instrinsic faith (using the instrinsic, extrinsic and quest measurement scale). These sources allowed the respondents to develop coping strategies (or resources)of being able to balance the pros and cons of ageing, and count blessings, to enjoy and foster friendship and confiding relationships, to routinely pray, and to use their humour for healing.
The practical implications of working with reality and death is that we need to speak about death to our ageing friends and to ourselves. We need to think about our own deaths and locate ourselves as people who will die. This gives us the opportunity to live in the present with less fear of the future.As carers we should as our primary task of caring give people t the opportunity to talk about their fears of death and their wishes. This is both a practical tasks and a spiritual accompaniment. Often the facing of the practical implications leads to other discussion. The making of a will, the settling of affairs and the anticipatory grief associated with these things will all allow a reality to take hold. This then liberates the individual and the carer to enjoy each others present. The elephant in the room has been spotted and identified and is now a welcome participant.
The spirituality of finding the love of God resides in the reality of the cross and resurrection. In our ends are our beginnings to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. The spiritual journey is assisted by the realistic facing of our own deaths and the love of God therein.
Review, reflect and sum up one’s life
The importance of reflection at any age is now recognised particularly in the caring professions. Professional practice implies reflection through supervision and recently there is an interest in the use of reflection for developing practice. This is also the case in theology. Theological reflection, auto ethnography and the importance of story all have common currency in our society now. This gives us an opportunity to find ways of incorporating this kind of reflection into our daily lives and into our caring practices. Jung was obviously interested in this in terms of the psychoanalytic journey but this practice can be done in different ways. Working with different media, story telling and spiritual history taking can all be part of this.The task of review as we age gives us a chance to reflect upon Gods work in our lives both retrospectively and prospectively. Indeed the act of review, of story telling and relating is an act rather than an account. The act of telling our story changes the story and our understanding of it.
The implications for carers is that the listening to and unpacking the story and its spiritual importance is part of the caring act. Again if the story teller does not have as their purpose a spiritual journey then the search for the love of God will be absent. This does not mean that the story is not important and it should be told and listened to. For example the patient who is frightened of a forthcoming operation and is worried tht they will not come round after the anaestheticmay not be expressinga search for the love of God. They may be expressing existential fear or physical anxiety. They may of course find in the telling of their existential fear that they find themselves searching for the love of God. This process is understood through discernment. This is why we need spiritual help.
To draw some mental boundaries : preserve and select time and energy
This task of ageing seems to suggests something of the disengagement thesis. Don’t try and do it all or be all things to all men. Know yourself and your strengths and choose wisely. At a very practical level we can interpret this as, if you can’t play 18 holes of golf, then play 9. This resonates with the ideas of resilience and reality and balance and also with the ideas of adaptation, optimisation and compensation of Baltes and Baltes.So our caring duty might be to negotiate the boundaries with our elderly charges or with ourselves.We need to pace ourselves. But we also need to trust our own intuitions. This implies that our risk averse behaviour in our institutions needs to be tempered with risk acceptance. The spiritual journey could be risky. As a spiritual task we need to prioritise what is important. If we wish to pursue our journey of loving God then we might for instance wish to pray on a regular and guided basis. This requires a re think about our daily routines and priorities.Whilst successful ageing indicates a willingness to review our busyness and take with us into our old age some of the activities (but not all) of our middle age (Atchley) our spiritual journey requires us to prioritise our search for love of God. This task also raises the unpopular spector of disengagement. This has been a deeply unpopular approach to ageing, based on a functionalist approach to understanding society.In a study years ago I asked distinguished and elderly professionals who were specialists in ageing about their views on disengagement in the light of their own ageing. There seemed to be some agreement that selective disengagement was essential and desirable as one aged. This allows for space and time for contemplation.
Rediscover God in self
This is a specifically spiritual task. It has relevance to our developmental stages identified by Erikson. Our busy generative lives while we are developing our place in the world suggest that we might externalise God even as we search for Him. In old age we have the opportunity for this rediscovery. Jung’s particular meaning and understanding of God is not clear but that is not particularly relevant to this discussion. The task is to re connect with God as part of the journey. This is part of our search for the love of God.
Whatever Jung meant by this in terms of his psychoanalytic framework, the practical impact of this phrase in our cultural moment is much more about adistinction at a practical level between ego and identity. This was clearly identified by the discussion group who were Church based. They used ego in a common sense definition understanding it to mean over interest in self and a reflection of the me society. In this case they agreed that the overcoming of this process was linked to a more humble approach to the world and also some kind of stepping down. However they did not see this in terms of overcoming identity which they saw as an important part of the resilience of older people. Knowing who we are helps us overcome our worst excesses and helps us love God. They also saw this task as concerned with learning to receive and be generous in terms of the gifts of the spirit. In practical terms and in relation to finding the love of God we can see that knowing oneself, accepting oneself and reducing one’s reliance on the ego driven urges we have (like ambition and recognition) leads us to a closer relationship with God and placing our Trust in him.
Find meaning through memory and analysis
This task was thought to belinked to the idea of reflection. Again it involves story telling and story listening.Interpretation of previous events and life story helps locate meaning and if done in the context of thespiritual journey search for the love of God can help us see God’s work in our lives retrospectively. Whilst lifehas to be lived prospectivelyitcan only be understood retrospectively. We can help each other do this work. There are currently structured opportunities to do this in for instance the work on reminiscence with older people.In a recent project working with an artist and healthcare chaplain (Voicing the Spiritual, available on the website) we worked with older people with dementia and their carers, helping each other find our spiritual voices through the medium of paint, cloth and story telling. This allowed us all working together, to weave our spiritual stories and find points of transformation within each other.
Be creative and playful
This final task is the most welcome. The accomplishment of this task has to depend to some extent, on the accomplishment of the others however. It is difficult to be creative and playful if we are burdened with fear of death and the reality that implies, or unable to tell our story in a way that gives us insights, or control our routines and rituals and concentrate on what seems important. They are all dependent on each other. This takes us back to the first task which shows us that grasping reality of death and ageing liberates us to live in the present. The need to carry out tasks for a purpose can be dispensed with and the purpose can be simply enjoyment. The need to feel that one is being productive and contributing to some greater work can be displaced by living in the moment as a contribution.
What I have tried to do in this e presentation is consider the idea of spiritual journey in the light of tasks of ageing particularly those identified by Jung. I wanted to explore these tasks and have used the discussions had with colleagues at a recent conference to stimulate thinking about the tasks and their value to those of us working with older people and ageing ourselves. I’ve suggested that the spiritual journey is a specific process of searching for the love of God andis an accompaniment to our life course. Ageing can help us engage in that journey. I’ve reconsidered the idea of spirituality as applying to any questions of meaning and suggested that there is a distinction between the existential questions and the spiritual journey. I remain convinced that the ageing self has a great opportunity to engage in the spiritual journey and can be helped in this by the loving support of friends, family and carers, who are themselves ageing.
Thank you for reading this presentation.