Monday, 28 September 2009

reading old age

Hope I die before I get old; the line from The Who’s My Generation often pops into my mind when I hear matters of old age being discussed. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend haven’t had their wish fulfilled, though their two chums from the band were not so lucky. Last week the High Court upheld the law that allows businesses to make employees retire at 65 without any redundancy pay. The case had been brought by Help The Aged and Age Concern and, although their bid was unsuccessful, the judge did say there was a case for raising the compulsory retirement age.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about retirement recently. When I was ordained, clergy could receive a full pension after 37 years service and this meant I would get a full pension at 65 (2025). Then a couple of years ago the rules were changed and I worked out I need to keep going until I’m about 67. Sitting on my desk is the latest consultation document on changes to the Clergy Pension Scheme in preparation for a likely General Synod debate in February 2010 and suggestions include moving the pension age to 68 with a full pension after 43 years service. Don’t get me started on the challenges many colleagues face in buying a retirement home once they finish work and have to move out of their parsonage house.

Perhaps I need to be thinking less of My Generation and more about U2’s song Dirty Day and the line borrowed from Bukowski ‘The days run away like (wild) horses over the hill’. I can see my retirement disappearing over the horizon faster than I can say Additional Voluntary Contributions. Of course, what we stipendiary clergy are facing are the realities that most other employees must come to terms with, unless they happened to have bankrupted a major financial institution and headed over the hills with a massive guaranteed pension. The truth is that many people are looking forward to their retirement and old age, not in the hope of enjoying the golden years, but with genuine concern and even fear.

In July I attended a conference on the Learning Church with other colleagues from across the country including; Theological College and Courses staff, Continuing Ministerial Development Officers and Diocesan Adult Education Advisers. You might be tempted to think of one of Dante’s Circles of Hell and at times it felt like it. However, there were some highlights and one contribution in particular resonated with my thinking about retirement and old age.

James Woodward was until this year Director of The Leveson Centre for the Study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy. In a fascinating session entitled ‘Reading Old Age’ James presented some reflections on what emerges when we listen to the voices of old age and how that can shape and challenge our theology. This was done by introducing us to four narratives drawn from his extensive reading in the United States while on sabbatical. The four stories made for challenging listening and offered much food for thought; here are some of the observations that I jotted down:

may sarton The Journals of May Sarton at Seventy: May is a poet and author who writes about the inevitability of old age and reflects on the unsolved, painful mistakes and reasons for shame and woe. Yet, May also comments that she is ‘more myself than I have ever been’. Constant themes are downsizing and uncluttering and the need for ‘nurturing thankfulness’.

shields The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead; David Shields. This book is a biography of Shields’ own body and a narrative of his Father’s old age; much graphic physical detail and the challenge to listen to one’s own body and the wisdom that exists in it. There is a term used in the United States called ‘successful aging’, how do we judge what is fulfilling and what makes us happy? Man is a ‘pleasure seeking missile’ and we must resist giving in to the inevitability of how things should be. We need to live with the possibility of change as part of the narrative. ‘Everyone tries, no one wins, everyone dies’.

Last_Gift_of_Time The Last Gift of Time – Life Beyond Sixty; Carolyn G. Heilbrun. Carolyn determined that she would end her life by the age of 70 and reflects on some key questions:

  • Why is it good to be old?
  • Can we be ourselves?
  • What freedoms are there in old age?
  • Will old age be conventional or unconventional?

The writer observes that the circle of friends in old age is enriched by a range of ages; she is challenged by the issue of memory and asks why so few can live in the present? Carolyn observes that in the last decades memory prevents us looking at what is in front of us in the present and she sees memory as a ‘useless distraction’. The author did take her own life which raises the question of how her suicide affects a reading of her book and what she left unsaid.

billfath The Bill from My Father; Bernard Cooper. This is a memoir about the relationship between the author and his father. One day Cooper senior presented Cooper junior with a bill for all it had cost to bring him up and demanded repayment; the bill came to $1.7 million! Much of the book is a reflection on the horrors of the onset of dementia and the perpetual question of who shapes our story?

Four quite different stories connected by themes raised in contemplating old age and all of them remind us that we have a long way to go in our theology and praxis when it comes to this issue.


christine said...

one day I was a young mum, and now I'm the aged sage.I retire in 18 months, and will not carry on till 65.My parents each died at 63, and without wishing to be pessimistic I want to enjoy some life. Also my husband died at 44 so I feel that getting older and enjoying time is a privilege. Whether that will be true when I actually get there I don't know, my family think I'll be bored - we shall see. As for you - well you'll be able to do the occasional wedding and get some fun out of it. The priest who officiated at my daughter's (C of E) wedding went on at length about homosexuality and virginity ( or the lack of it in ancient Corinth). And then he went home and was never seen again.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comment Christine. My dad is in his late 70s and still takes services each Sunday along with weddings and funerals, he loves it. We have a retired Canon in his 70s and a Reader in his 80s still ministering in our parish and offering so much from their experience, wisdom and faith.

Ernest said...

An interesting perspective on growing older. I have just retired (enforced) aged 60, having reached the upper age limit for my role in the services.

Fortunately, I will have the benefit of a Government pension? So finance is not a real issue.

I have been fortunate to feel a call to serve within my Parish, and am now in the process of a parish attachment and discernment, so much to do, learn and to grow, it is like starting life anew and renewed. God works in wonderful and mysterious ways!

I am finding it wonderfully challenging and full of joy. I am doing a day release course at training courses at CWR, a part time course at Christchurch Uni starts next month and parish work as well.

When did I ever have time for work!