[This text is from Dr Graham Hawley’s talk to the Christians on Ageing seminar on 20 April 2021]
After listening to and learning from older people over 60 years as a Methodist Minister and 20 year’s research in the subject, I do value the narratives of older people. But I bring three questions to our subject; Why? What? and How?
Why should we value the narratives of older people?
- Because they have lived long lives and in them experienced engaging with the day to day realities of life over that time. They’ve faced the questions of everyday life, and so, in the process have likely to have acquired some practical wisdom as a result. They represent the bulk of our congregations and so, too often, are referred to as “pillars of the church’. An ageist discriminatory remark, for we all know what pillars do. They represent a committed generation of volunteers, both in the church and wider community. Lord Filkin in his House of Lord’s Select Committee Report.Ready for Ageing (2013) maintained:
Longer lives represent progress, and the changes do not mean a greater economic or general fiscal crisis. Moreover the contribution to our society made by older people, which is already impressive, will be even greater as a result: 30% of people aged over 60 volunteer regularly through formal organisations. (p.1)
So, there would be considerable gaps in the life of our communities if older people withdrew their voluntary labour in many areas of community care and service.
- Although making up the bulk of congregations, older people do not feature, in the main, as a resource for the ministry and mission of the churches. They are rather seen as in need of pastoral care, which they are. Their role can be seen, mainly, as office holders to maintain the institution of the church. In this regard it is significant that there is no cohesive approach to engaging with the narrative/life stories of older people. Their faith development is at a premium. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (1995), still the classic work on Faith Development, makes no mention of older people
- There have been unsuccessful attempts to address this issue. In (1990) The Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility produced the report Ageing It claimed that:
We do people an injustice if it is assumed that because they are old and are coming to church every Sunday they no longer want to talk about their faith. What is essential is a greater honesty about both the spiritual needs and the riches associated with growing older. (p.121)
Similarly The Methodist Church and the Church of England’s Education Board held a consultation in (2007) which produced a study guide Seasons of My Soul, and The Methodist Church in (2012) published a discussion document Third Age Discipleship. None of these resulted in purposeful debate and subsequent action. So what is the value and importance of these narratives of older people that are being ignored?
What is the value and importance of the narratives of older people?
David Polkinghorne, the Harvard psychologist has devoted his professional life to the study of the nature of narrative. In, probably his best known book, Narrative Knowing and The Human Sciences (1988) he states:
At the individual level, people have a narrative of their own lives which enables them to construe what they are and where they are headed…(He further adds) Narrative is a form of meaning making. (p.14)
Reisman (1993) endorses this understanding of narrative claiming:
A primary way individuals make sense of experience is by casting it in narrative form. (p.4)
- So older people are drawing upon years of living and practical experience of grappling with life’s questions and challenges and trying to find meaning and purpose in it all in the context of their life’s narrative. Finding meaning and purpose in life is a crucial feature of living, therefore, we cannot afford to neglect what older people have discovered over the years.
- Whilst, like all generations, ours is not an homogenous one. We have our “prisoners of the past” and anti-change addicts. But my experience is that with a little encouragement, older people can open up and share the narrative of their lives. I’ve met such comments as “we’re still pilgrims on a journey”. Quite! Hinchman & Hinchman (2001) in their book Memory, Identity and Community: The Ideas of Narrative in the Human Sciences, underline the importance of the active role of narrative when they stress:
Narrative emphasises the active, self-shaping quality of human thought, the power of stories to create and refashion personal ID. (p.xiv)
So older people should not be seen, as in the ageist attitude, simply those who are waiting for the call of “the grim reaper”. But how do we value the narratives of older people.
How do we value the narratives of older people?
- On concluding some research into this subject my supervisor urged me to “run with this issue”. She wanted me to do more research, which I resisted. Instead I established an Older Pilgrims’ Workshop for Third Agers – 70 – 80+ years on Faith and Life issues. It was an ecumenical group of some 30 men and women. The purpose was to have an interactive session. They much appreciated the chance to question and discuss, and the feedback consistently revealed how they valued discovering others who struggled with similar questions to themselves. They came because they did not have a facility in their local church where they could be open and honest. Such opportunities are invaluable for sharing the narratives of older people.
- Intergenerational events, where young, middle-aged and older people can join in honest interaction would be a helpful way to encourage sharing narratives of older people. It would also be a way of dispelling the ageist myth that older people are a questioning and doubt free generation, but rather still actively engaged with facing life’s realities.
- As we’ve already noted there is a strong focus on the pastoral care of older people. But we do not seem to hear how questions and concerns shared during the course of this feature for example in worship, respecting confidentiality of course. The possibility of older people sharing something of the questions and concerns arising from their narrative, either individually, in a small group, by being interviewed or as a feature of the worship. This would help further to demonstrate the ongoing nature of older people’s narrative.
- Dannefer & Phillipson (2010) observe, in relation to the narratives of older people:
As Berger and Luckmann emphasised in their classic sociological treatise, The Social Construction of Reality (1967), human beings are, from the beginning of life to the end of it, ‘unfinished’ by biological determinants, and are formed and continuously reformed in the course of everyday life. (p.6)
We see, therefore, that older people continue to share in the ongoing nature of life like any other generation and are not locked in some form of arrested ageist cul de sac. A reality that needs to be taken on board by church and wider society. It is further important to appreciate that older people’s narratives are not just nostalgic indulgences, but rather, as Schaffer (1992) maintains;
…narrative is not an alternative to truth or reality, rather it is the mode in which inevitably, truth and reality are presented. (p. xiv)
Hence the need to value the narratives of older people.
Ageing, (1990) Church of England Board of Social Responsibility, Church House, London
Dannefer & Phillipson (20100, The sage Handbook of Social Gerontology, Sage, London
Filkin, Lord, (2013) House of Lord’s Select Committee Report Ready for Ageing, HMSO, London
Fowler, (1995), Stages of Faith, Harper, New York
Hawley (2004-2019), Older Pilgrim’s Workshops,Marple, UK
Hinchman & Hinchman (2001), Memory, ID & Community, State University Press, New York
Polkinhorne, (1988), Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences, State University Press, New York.
Schaffer (1992), Retelling a Life Basic Books, New York.
Seasons of My Soul (2007), Church of England Education Board & The Methodist Church, Church House & Maryleborne Road, London.
Third Age Discipleship (2012), The Methodist Church, London.