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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy
Is Religion the Friend of Ageing?

Is Religion the Friend of Ageing?

Peter Coleman - Third Leveson Lecture
Published by the Leveson Centre for the Study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy, 2004.
25 pages, price £5.00 (inc. p & p). order now

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Review of Leveson Paper Number 9 by Anne McClelland

Peter Coleman, Professor of Psychogerontology at Southampton, found it a challenge to speak as a psychologist about how psychology could help in the studies in which the Leveson Centre is engaged – ageing, spirituality and social policy. To his great disappointment psychology still hasn’t, in his opinion, really made connections with ageing or spirituality or social policy. Two early pioneers William James and Erik Erikson were exceptions in stressing the need not only for reason but also for trust without which some truths of life would remain hidden. Psychology will need to investigate today some of the effects of religion on society – for instance, terrorism.

Is religion the friend of ageing? Overall, Coleman feels that it does not pay sufficient attention to the growing numbers of the very old. The Fourth Age where increasing lack of control and the negative aspects of ageing such as loss of dignity and of role are exaggerated can follow suddenly on the heels of the Third Age which for many today in this country is the time when people are free to be themselves. In the past older people tended to engage more fully with religious practice in advancing years. Today there are big differences in what people regard as important. Personal well-being and the pursuit of happiness, he suggests, tend to be the goals for many today. Control of one’s life is a sign of well-being for many but for Muslims, for instance, such control and acquisition of worldly goods are not what is sought. There is difference too in attitudes to death and to the end of life.

In a survey in this country in co-operation with Saga it became clear that ‘personal spiritual experience appears more significant for many than communal church life’. This greater personalising of faith entails, he asserts, greater need for spiritual education – that is to say not just instruction (many hold reservations about some tenets of the creed) but also open discussion with peers as well as church authorities.

Coleman is left with the contradiction between the ‘spiritual uncertainty, questioning and lack of rootedness’ that has come out in many of the interviews with older people recently and ‘the cultural ideal of the older person as the reliable transmitter of traditional religious models of thought and practice’. He fears for many current older people who seem to have less access to spiritual resources than did their forebears.

A clearer distinction needs to be made, it seems to me, between religion and spirituality, and between spiritual experience and spiritual practice. Spiritual experience is a gift. Spiritual practice can be engaged in at will as a discipline. Spiritual practice could be strengthening for people of any age but elderly people, through that practice, might find a role for themselves in the church, as transmitters of models of thought and practice. That religion should be the friend of ageing seems indisputable. Signs of that friendship would also be signs of renewal for the religion and for society.

Anne McClelland is a retired Unitarian minister

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