Image via WikipediaWay back in October 2010, I posted details of a conference, Celebrating Later Life: Older People Spirituality and Faith. It was held in Leeds by Churches Together in England and West Yorkshire Ecumenical Council. I found this account of the conference in Unity Post:
‘We have forgotten the fruit an older tree can bear’- thus we were invited to break the stereotype of ‘old and dependent’ that allows the ageism to persist. We were reminded that dependency is a feature on average only for the last two years of life and that the vast majority of people over 80 do not require residential care and do not develop dementia. Keith Albans, Group Director (Chaplaincy and Spirituality) of the Methodist Homes for the Aged (MHA) Care Group, told us that celebrating longer life gave us the challenge of revisiting our ways of thinking, whether theological or economic, in the context of these great changes in the age structure of the population which have developed so rapidly in the last 100 years.
This meeting was held in Interfaith week, and Albert Jewell, who has made a study of the spirituality of the main religions as they relate to later life, made clear that all faith traditions have respect for the wisdom of age, in fact ‘ageing is sageing’. But there are differences in how the older person is expected to deal with their spiritual life. In Islam, there is no concept of ‘retirement’ – one is to remain engaged with the community; in Hinduism, one should ‘go to the forest’ – away from family in order to come closer to God; in Buddhism one renounces material things to gain simplicity which aids attaining Nirvana. We were reminded that Abraham set off at the age of 75, leaving all behind, to lead his people to a new life.
Rosemarie Harris of Leeds Jewish Housing Association reminded us of the importance of family, and eating together. Satwant Kaur Rait spoke of the Sikh emphasis on equality, and on spiritual growth in old age. There were good local stories. Sister Agatha Leach, CJ, was involved in the origins of a MHA Multi-faith care facility in South Leeds which will offer care sensitive to the spiritual needs of faith communities. Linda White of St Peter’s Bradford amazed us with her account of a small inner city Bradford Anglican church in a largely Muslim area with a number of isolated elderly Christians. With a mission ‘to be a blessing in our community’, they run an ‘Anchor Project – beyond the Lunch Club’. This aims to be a ‘safe space for all’ and provides a chance for the older people to socialise with each other but also to get to know their Muslim neighbours through a variety of events and activities.
What about later life when frailty, particularly mental, supervenes? Perseverance and resilience were often mentioned as virtues. I had read that Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald Reagan (the first major figure to make public that he had Alzheimer’s) had said, ‘Beneath the surface of the disease is a soul that can’t have Alzheimer’s, a soul that still wants to be heard’.
We heard of a ‘Friendship Club’, where people with dementia and their carers can come and be valued, supported and entertained. CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network), of the Catholic Church, has a specific project on Spirituality and Dementia. Discussion groups were urged to take ageing more seriously, in ourselves and in our faith groups.