Books reviewed by James Woodward

Spiritual Growth and Care in the Fourth Age of Life

Spiritual Growth and Care in the Fourth Age of Lifeby Elizabeth MacKinlay,
Jessica Kinsley Publishers 2006, £17.99
ISBN 1-84310-231-5

(from the Church Times 28 July 2006)

In September 1990 Archbishop George Carey gave an interview to the Reader’s Digest and was asked to describe how he saw the Church today.  He expressed the hope that the Church would grow progressively younger.  Developing the analogy, he said that the church today seemed to him rather like a very old grandmother who sat by the chimney breast muttering to herself, ignored by the rest of the family, and out of touch with its culture.  This image was said to be symbolic of the Church’s ageism; our inability to embrace and affirm an all age Church within which older people are partners in evangelism.  In the Diocese of Birmingham there is little interest in older people and strategies for survival seem increasingly problematic.

MacKinlay has been a pioneer in the development of a framework within which we might understand the role of pastoral and spiritual care as part of helping older people to cope with their experiences.  This book is a companion volume to her earlier work (The Spiritual dimension of Ageing) and offers a useful range of material, gathered in from both qualitative and quantitative research, focussed on the struggles that face older people in the latter stage of their lives.  Her strength is to offer useful pointers to enable the reader to look at how spiritual needs might be assessed in older people and how care homes might develop a person-centred approach to care which enlarges sympathy and develops good practice. She also tackles the ethical dimension of care including the use of health resources with older people and end of life issues.  Though this is a rather specialised book, anyone who is interested in how spirituality might assist in the search for life-meaning, and questions associated with a person’s sense of self and non-physical needs, would benefit from reading this. 

While MacKinlay does not adequately deal with the nature of religion and the way in which it engages with spirituality, the range of definitions offered from a multi- faith and cultural perspective are useful starting points for further reflection.

The book does not deal in any detail with some of the social, economic and political issues that face how best a society should provide for older people.  It is helpful to note that Australia has pioneered some excellent examples of care and housing for older people, especially in the area of dementia care. This provision is linked with Australian society’s preparedness to resource care and housing through its systems of tax and benefits.  Here in the U.K. there are serious moral questions and judgements to be made how our society makes appropriate provision for an increasing number of older people.  This deserves more attention from our churches.

Another particular strength of this book is in its provision of resource material to enable older people to reminisce about the meaning that they have experienced in life and how wisdom might be deepened as part of the spiritual quest.  This material could equally be used by Christians who wish to enlarge their view of mission and ministry; to equip disciples to enlarge and deepen their sense of vocation. 

All this leads me to acknowledge and affirm two things.  First, that older people are the church’s natural spiritual constituency.  As such we should be aware of any attitudes and practices that disempower or marginalise them.  Our mission should embrace their experience and respond to the questions that older people have raised in the belief that older people have much to contribute and share.  A mutual understanding of their needs and aspirations can enable the deepening of a Church which is inclusive and wise. We need older people’s experience as part of the whole family’s inclusiveness as it develops into generational conversation and community solidarity.  We need both action and reflection; noise and silence; independence and dependence if we are to build spiritual communities which are inter-dependent and open to who God would have us to be.  In this way MacKinlay offers us a useful and informative framework within which we explore the distinctive spiritual opportunities that living with and learning from older people bring to us.

James Woodward