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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy

God: the attitudes of the various faith traditions to the elderly

An article by Revd Ivor Smith-Cameron reprinted with permission from the Milton Keynes and Malvern Papers July 1999

As a result of advances in technology the globe has shrunk and whoever we are, or wherever we are, we are now all global citizens living in a global village, and never more so than in a large metropolitan area. Such a sea change in the way we live now has resulted in significant changes in religious attitudes (both among the elderly and the young) and in the realm of community and race relations. Until fairly recently each religion flourished in its own particular region: Hinduism in India; Islam in the Middle East; Buddhism in South East Asia and the Far East; and Christianity with its focus in Europe and North America. All this has now changed, and changed radically and irreversibly.

Here in Britain today we are told there are 2 million Muslims - more in number in Britain than members of the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed Churches put together. Leicester, apart from Durban, is now the largest Hindu city outside India. There are more Jews to the square mile in the London Borough of Redbridge than in the state of Israel. The Nightingale House in Balham, South London, is the largest Jewish home for the elderly in Europe. Southall in West London is reckoned to be the capital of the Sikhs outside the Punjab. Every few months new Buddhist viharas and monasteries are springing up in the UK countryside, peopled mostly by white Buddhist nuns and monks. It is now a fact that no Londoner lives more than a half-hour journey from a mosque, a temple, a gurdwara, a synagogue, a vihara or a church.

It is within this new, complex, dynamic and pluralistic situation that we need to consider the attitudes which are adopted by the members of these various faith-communities towards the elderly in their midst, many of whom have lived in Britain for two, three or four decades and who have themselves grown old in this land. These women and men have undergone many changes in their attitudes to the issues of religion, family mores, cultural differences within generation spaces, and above all they have had to confront the gradual ebbing of faith and religious commitment attendant upon the effects of secularism. There was a time when whether you were a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Sikh you lived your faith within a community context which was drenched and soaked in religious practices, customs, rites and ceremonies. This religious background and context coloured attitudes to life issues, including attitudes to the elderly, approaches to death, and so on. Today at the dawn of the new millennium we in Europe confront a civilisation which has had the religious dimension filtered out of the air which we all breath.

Whilst it is true that secularism has not annihilated religion and faith (in fact there is evidence of a growing appreciation of faith today) it has certainly in all faith communities drastically loosened our links with institutional religion. This has had both advantages and disadvantages.

In a short essay it will not be possible to offer more than a few brief reflections as to how today faith communities approach the question of the elderly in their midst. Any contribution to this vitally important subject cannot be more than general in its approach as the subject under consideration is complex, and unfolding all the time. An attempt is made here to offer approaches (albeit incomplete and inadequate) adopted by some of the main faith traditions, taken alphabetically.

In Buddhism there is a very strong emphasis on what is known as koyo (the performing of koyo) which is deep filial piety. All Buddhists are encouraged to practise filial piety and perform koyo. In the strand of Buddhism called Mahayana a great movement arose called 'the final vehicle' or 'the great career'. The allusion here is to the career of what is known as a Bodhisattva, a future Buddha. Buddhists are called - especially as they grow older - to attain nirvana (enlightenment), but Mahayana Buddhism emphasises that it Is better to aim to attain nirvana in the distant future, but in the meanwhile, both in the attitudes towards the elderly and in the attitudes of the elderly, to become as perfect as possible by helping all living things. Therefore it is good while growing old to take the Bodhisattva vow.

Christianity in Britain springs from many roots. New roots have developed in Britain from Christianity in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean. From these roots come a very strong emphasis on the extended family and Christians here from these roots have a very strong sense of community and the elderly within the community play a leading role as advisers, senior friends, bearers of religious traditions, patriarchal and matriarchal models for the rest of the community. Of course, the longer these communities have been exposed to secular western culture the looser become the links with the community. Such communities are undergoing a process of change (often including conflict between generations).

Christian women and men who belong to the majority-ethnic part of British society have experienced an erosion of their faith commitment and whereas in former times the sense of family was strong, over the past years, especially since World War II, there has been a shift to the nuclear family, and community has been replaced by individualism. This has led, some think unfortunately, to a mushrooming of homes for the elderly. In the best of these, individual care is excellently dispensed but alas, in the worst of them an atmosphere of hopelessness, loneliness, alienation and 'cast-off-ness' is only too apparent. Mobility, the break-up of marriages, the removal from the scene of authority figures, the growth of both men and women working, and the effects of feminism liberating daughters from the shackles of serfdom, the fact that most women and men now live much longer (as a priest I very often conduct funerals for those over 85 and 90 year olds): all these factors have contributed to what can become a potential 'ghettoisation' of the elderly in Britain. With families now three generations lost to the Christian faith, the strong sense of hope and purpose and meaning generated by the practice of religion is greatly weakened. This will have profound consequences for the future.

Hindu women and men have a knowledge of life which has set phases. The final phase of a human life according to the Hindu scriptures is venerated as a stage when the person enters a life of penance, prayer and spiritual discipline. This is often referred to as the 'life of a sannyasin' and it is an honoured life. It is a life of simplicity, a withdrawal from the busyness of life, a life given to works of charity and prayer. Leading Indians like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi have often to the elderly been icons of simplicity, whose lives have expressed an avowed refusal to be caught up in the rat-race of consumerism and nationalism, which leads to intellectual and cultural voluptuousness. The sannyasin's aspiration to 'eat only what he could hold in the palm of his hand' leads to a spiritual growth denied to those who are consumed by greed. The lives of elderly Hindus often express a concentration on seeking the Divine, and most of them have shrines erected in their homes.

Jewish people have always over the ages had a sense of their own identity and this remains strong even today. Whilst there has been a haemorrhaging of the Jewish community in the UK (mainly due to marrying-out within the community) there is still a very sharp sense of preserving the Jewishness of their people even among the aged in the community. Although religious observance may not be as strong as Jewish leaders might like, the elderly Jews keep a very strong sense of the cultural and social practices of the faith.

Among Muslim people there exists a very strong commitment towards the elderly, strongly reinforced by what is taught in the Holy Qur'an.

Prophet Mohammed (peace upon him and his family) has said:

The honourable person among my followers is she who respects the elders.

An elderly person in the house is the same as a prophet is in the community or amongst the nation. [The job of a prophet is to guide his people, act as a role model for the community, admonish the wrongdoers and so on.]

In the Shi'ite tradition, the Imams have reinforced this teaching. The sixth Imam, Ja'fer As'sadique has said:

Respect your elders and be kind to your blood relations.

One who does not respect the elders and the orphans is not amongst us.

The fourth Imam, Ali Zainul Abideen has said:

Think of your fellow brothers in faith better than yourself. The elders are better than you because they had more opportunities to do good and virtuous deeds. People younger than yourself - their sins are fewer than yours. People of your age are better because you are aware of your own sins but unaware of their sins.

Also among the sayings are:

The wisdom of an elderly person is better than the bravery of a young man.

Respect your young ones so that they respect you in return.

The Sikh tradition with its wholesome emphasis on community and hospitality produces among the elders of the faith tradition women and men who commit themselves to good works and love of fellow humans. Many devote themselves in their gurdwaras to serving God in prayer and serving their fellow beings (of whatever faith or none) with food and charity. It is a most pleasing experience to be on the receiving end of Sikh unquestioning and non-judgemental hospitality.

These brief reflections upon a section of our population which is increasing and will continue to increase are offered to show that the religious dimension of life, even in a highly secularised society, has not been obliterated.

Revd Ivor Smith-Cameron

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