It used to be the case that the only two certainties in life were death and taxes. Now – at least in the prosperous First World – a third has been added to this mordant list: old age. You can’t open a newspaper or listen to the radio without stumbling on yet another discussion about the demographics, economics, political significance or social problems of the elderly. When media guru Joan Bakewell (in her 80s) and Pope Francis (in his late 70s) are both giving their views on the subject, you know it’s here to stay.
Behind all the media interest, there seem to be two very different ways of looking at the ageing question: the spiritual, which sees old age as the last stage of the journey to God and which has developed a theology of hope about this phase in life; and the human, which tries to be upbeat – isn’t 80 the new 70? – yet which dreads the prospect of dementia (statistics for this rise steeply the older you get) and which is wedded to ideas of personal autonomy and “rights”. In practice this means the right to die before you become too decrepit and too dependent on others: a philosophy of pessimism.
These thoughts have been stirred by an attractive little booklet, produced by the Little Sisters of the Poor, called Season of Hope: Prayers and Reflections on Ageing, which my older sister gave my mother (now aged 91 and still demanding her glass of whisky every evening) for Mothering Sunday. The charism of the Little Sisters is the care of the poor and the elderly; every page includes a photo of an old person, usually with a smiling Little Sister, accompanied by a reflection by a well-known writer. These are a mixed group from different faith traditions, including Alden Solovy, a Jewish poet, Johann Christoph Arnold, an Elder in the Bruderhof community, and Chief Tecumseh, a Native American who died in 1813.
The Chief writes: “When it comes to your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” I understand the wider meaning of this sentiment and rather like the way it is expressed – but alongside it are my memories of reading about the exceptionally hard lives lived by the tribes of the Great Plains and the kind of death endured by their old people.
More familiar are the words expressed by the then Cardinal Angelo Roncalli in his private journal, one year before he was elected Pope John XXIII: he is 76, three-quarters of his contemporaries are already dead, he is mourning the death of his beloved brother Giovanni yet “trusting day by day in the Lord, to whom I am now turned as a child turns to his father’s open arms”.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI is less personal, reflecting on the role of grandparents in the light of Ss Joachim and Anne, the parents of Our Lady. There is also Blessed John Henry Newman’s prayer for a happy death, where he asks for “the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in Your faith, in Your Church, in Your service, and in Your love”. He did just this, dying peacefully and still mentally alert, aged 89, at the Birmingham Oratory in 1890.
The collection includes a picture of St John Paul II, elderly but still mobile, walking with a stick in a white cassock and jacket in the Dolomites. The whole world knows of his long struggle with Parkinson’s and his very public death, making his words, “And when the moment of our definitive ‘passage’ comes, grant that we may face it with serenity, without regret for what we shall leave behind”, especially poignant.
Instead of being anxious about the future, or being dragged down by the number of implicitly “euthanasia-friendly” personal stories that pop up with alarming frequency in the press, let’s focus on the words here of Johann Christoph Arnold: “Many ask themselves, ‘How can I make my last years more enjoyable, more exciting?’ Wouldn’t a better question be, ‘How can God use my last days to his purpose?'”
The booklet is available from The Little Sisters of the Poor, St Joseph’s Home, 66, Cotham Road, Bristol BS6 6JT. Call 0117 973 3815 to order a copy. The booklet is free but donations are welcomed.