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Hopeful Ageing

By guest writer Rosalie Hudson, Meaningful Ageing Australia Research Consultant

The Children of Men, P.D. James’ 1992 dystopian novel is set in England in 2021. The ‘Omegas’ are described as ‘spoiled, over-entitled and egotistical because of their youth and luxurious lifestyle. They are violent, remote, and unstable. They regard non-Omegas (elders) with undisguised contempt, yet they are spared punishment due to their age’. By the year 2021 no babies have been born for a quarter of a century and the very old are being driven to despair and suicide. So, the Quietus is introduced as a humane, dignified process to assist them to end their lives:

  • ‘A ceremony for death with dignity for all those who have reached 67 years of age.
  • All the safeguards are in place, it’s purely voluntary, with forms signed in triplicate.
  • This is their passage to freedom—freedom from boredom, freedom from want, freedom from fear.
  • They are led to the water’s edge, clothed in white and with the band playing “Abide with me” gently led into low boats filled with weights, quietly to drift and to sink.’

One onlooker had asked: ‘If we gave them hope would they volunteer for this?’ We, of the 21st century, may well wonder whether our attitude to ageing has become more dystopian than PD James’ fiction? What do we hope for?

‘I hope I remain active as long as possible, and then just drop dead’

‘I hope I die in my sleep’

‘I hope I don’t have to suffer’

‘I hope I receive good care’

For others, hope and despair are not too far apart: ‘I can’t go on another day’ said a patient in the palliative care ward, amending her statement later in the day after receiving expert care and effective pain relief: ‘The day turned out much better than I expected!’ Ageing may have other hopeful implications. ‘I’ve had to really consider what’s important in life and I’ve had a chance to strengthen my relationships with family and friends and I now feel more content with who I am’.

Much public commentary portrays ageing as inherently negative: something to postpone, avoid, deny, counteract or eliminate. A focus away from ageing’s universal reality leads to contemporary practices to try and save every person from such a fate. Hence, the variety of pills and potions promising postponement of an ageing society.

Other negative responses to ageing arise from a sense of hopelessness. In the absence of hope, longevity seems a cruel hoax. Some believe that hope is only maintained when one is certain of life after death. For others, hope is aligned with the expectation of creative, responsive living in this life: adequate housing, trusting neighbours, resolution of personal and family issues. For some however, total resolution of problems is not the aim; rather, the fulfilment of a friend’s company or the sound of music suffices. Creating a legacy by way of a journal, art or video helps some to respond with hope to the inevitability of their declining years. Many people find satisfaction through donating to charities and/or investing in creating or rebuilding relationships with family and friends. For others, hope fades, if not vanishes, in the face of illness.

In a provocative article, Gilbert Meilaender poses the question his wife may ask if required to care for him in the hypothetical circumstances of him developing dementia. He believes she should not ask ‘Is this life worth living’? Rather, she should ask ‘What can we do to benefit the life he still has?’ Noting that in such a situation he would almost certainly be a burden to his wife he says:

No doubt she will bear the burden better than I would. No doubt it will be only the last in a long history of burdens she has borne for me. But then, mystery and continuous miracle that it is, she loves me. And because she does, I must of course be a burden to her.[i]

Ageing can be either a burden or a blessing. The former is often associated with illness, the latter with good health. Maintaining hope in the face of incurable disease seems at best illusory. When certain illnesses are considered a ‘fate worse than death’, hope is out of the question. Alternatively, when expert care is readily available hope is realised. This kind of hope is not ‘pie in the sky when you die’; it is grounded in human everyday reality, centred in life’s meaning. ‘Meaning, purpose and connectedness are at the heart of quality of life and quality of care for older people.’[ii]

In a cultural environment that favours productivity and perfection over disability, in a medical research environment devoted to the abolition of old age, is there a place for creative pastoral communities where we may age gracefully? What is the source of our life and our hope as we move inexorably toward our death, for regardless of our protests and our progress, ‘the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent!’.[iii]

Lacking any meaningful source of hope, the spirit of the age entices us to medicate ourselves to immortality, to upload our brains onto computers or to join the cryonics movement and have ourselves snap frozen, to be awakened in ‘x’ number of years when all our diseases cured. Christopher Lasch describes such obsession with abolishing old age not only as a ‘cult of youth’ but a ‘cult of the self’; both signs of ‘a struggle dear to the heart of a dying culture’. Furthermore, he says: ‘It is the faith of those without faith’.[iv]

Counter culturally, in the face of total reliance on individual biological, economic and technological progress, a more hopeful view of ageing emphasises our interdependency; we need each other.

This frame of reference asks not what we should do about the ageing problem but what is the meaning of ageing. This starting point would then look for different resources.

What will I need to sustain me as I grow older, to give my life meaning not merely as an old person but as a citizen; not as an isolated individual but as a person in community? How may the community’s generosity or the church’s fellowship embrace older persons in whatever setting? Who will nourish me, not only as one who needs to be physically fed, but as one who seeks food for my soul?

These questions suggest a response of mutuality, of reciprocal relationships at the heart of neighbourly care: not salvation through hope in ourselves.

[i] Meilaender, G. (1991). I want to burden my loved ones. First Things, 16 October, 12-16.

[ii] Meaningful Ageing Australia Fact Sheet: About Meaningful Ageing Australia.

[iii] Neuhaus, R. (2000). Born toward dying. First Things, February 2000, 15-22.

[iv] Christopher Lasch, 1985, The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations, London: Sphere Books, pp. 207, 210-211.