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Yeats' tin can

An article in The Friend (19 July 2002) written by Cecil Sharman and entitled 'Yeats' Tin Can' prompted a response from Gordon Smith. With permission we summarise both articles here and invite further contributions to the debate. For subscription details e-mail subs@thefriend.org

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Cecil Sharman writes:

Yeats wrote that old age had been tied to him 'like a tin can to a dog's tail'. Roy Fuller wrote sadly of himself as an old man among his 'toys'. Which aspects of old age are in question? A generation ago, people could expect to go on working until they were at least 60, and often 65, followed by some half-dozen fairly fit years, and probably after a short illness to die by at most 75. But everything has changed: our working lives have shortened and our lifespan has been prolonged by ten years or more.

Given the good health that many now enjoy, the early stages of retirement can indeed be active and enjoyable. Whilst we have the novelty of free time and strength in which to explore fresh places and new interests, as well as to revive social contacts and even make new ones, it is easy to ignore the truth - that we are on a downward slope, and that the longer it is the rougher the landing we can expect. Most of the talk about the pleasures of age belongs to those early, fitter years when it is easy to shut out the reality of the years beyond.

The museum engine stage

One sign of descent might well be our reaching the 'museum engine' stage. We have all seen impressive old machines chugging busily away in industrial museums, producing - nothing. Their appearance of useful activity is illusion. Our feeling of regret and even futility becomes more noticeable as our circle of friends is broken by distance, infirmity and death, and it becomes much more sadly acute if we are left without a partner. Yet those who write of ageing, from journalists to doctors, have apparently failed to recognise this and shrug off the loss of friends and even partners as of no great consequence. But can one's own individual survival ever really be enough for enjoyment and contentment? Are we really so 'lucky to be alive' if most of the tender ties which made our lives worth living have gone?

But this is only the first part of the story. We had been told officially that we could expect the good years up to, maybe, 75 or with luck a bit later, but doctors are now accepting that whilst their care and ingenuity may well defer death, sometimes for quite a long time, they cannot assure us fitness of body or mind.

A stay in the departure hall of life

In Gulliver's Travels Swift writes of old people who could not die, but existed increasingly lonely and unhappy because the people they had known, their families and friends, had all gone, leaving them no one with whom to share knowledge or interest. It is very unfashionable to draw attention to this unpleasant prospect - an uncertain stay in what might be called the airport departure hall of life, a terrain which may seem at first spacious and comfortable but soon feels tedious and stuffy.

We are likely to find ourselves penned in, too infirm for independence and finding less and less pleasure in living at all. Even the picture show of memory itself may give little comfort when it throws up before us the hurts we have done to others, but sadly, too late for regret or apology. And that is without the rattling pebbles in Yeats's tin can getting loose - the dementia, cancer or stroke which wait for those who avoid other age-related afflictions.

Unheard of changes

Our modern world brings complications beyond what Swift or even Yeats imagined possible. The rapidly changing paraphernalia of technology means that old people often hear a language spattered with unintelligible words, and even in their homes are surrounded by treacherously unmanageable equipment. And there are not just these material things to bewilder them. The norms of social, and what they would expect to call 'moral' behaviour are spinning around. The unheard-of and the unacceptable are now part of everyday living, whereas some views that they never thought could be questioned are thrown off as irrelevant and ridiculous.

These changes, and the extended living - which might really be called the deferment of dying - bring up for the first time in human experience a problem of social as well as medical responsibility. How justified are we in trying to manage the time of death when we cannot make the time preceding it worthwhile? The question for any treatment should not be 'Will it fend off death?' but 'Will the time gained be worth the gaining to the patient?' We ought not abandon it to the doctors.

New thinking?

I have no answers. I am not at all clear that we have begun to grasp the complexity of what we are being let in for, even at the practical level; and, I am afraid, even less so at the moral and spiritual one.

Whatever our own age we will have to face a lot of new thinking. Dylan Thomas, who died before he reached it, wanted old age to 'rage against the dying of the light'. The Quaker Advice 29 is cautiously hopeful: 'Although old age may bring increasing disability and loneliness, it can also bring serenity, detachment and wisdom.' That may be true of the early stages. I am not at all clear that it has anything to say about endless pain and the slow erosion of faculties.

Do we need a new testimony about dying, especially - as Charles II is supposed to have wryly said - it now often seems to take 'an unconscionable long time'?

Gordon Smith replies:

Old age is not for sissies!

Cecil Sharman's article is written with verve and concern. As one of those 'from journalists to doctors' who 'write of ageing', I feel challenged to respond. Firstly with gratitude. This is an article that calls attention to a matter of first importance to all of us, as individuals, as persons belonging in families of one sort or another and as citizens. It must now be part of everyone's consciousness in Western society that a third of the population is over the age of fifty.

Cecil Sharman is making open acknowledgement that the positive message about ageing applies much more obviously to the earlier ageing years. There follows for an increasing number among us a further extension of life-expectancy consequent partly upon the 'miracles of contemporary medicine' which perhaps does too easily become little more than 'a deferment of dying'. The stereotypical picture of those who end their days in a local nursing home is of persons who have lost all sparkle of spirit, all interest and sometimes ability in communication. It really is the departure lounge when the flight has been repeatedly postponed. Even sadder are those who end their days in lonely, disintegrating solitude. The wake-up call here is loud, long and clear. We need to face the darker, sometimes fearful realities of life in an ageing society, for ourselves, even more so for less protected others. Old age is not for sissies as Mary Morrison noticed in her Pendle Hill pamphlet. [1]

Responding to the challenge

But we need also to acknowledge that some at least have not only been aware for many years of this impending challenge but have been doing very practical things in response to it. The various Quaker sheltered housing projects have provided a context for a 'quality life' even in the later years for many Friends. The Hartrigg Oaks project in York is an outstanding pioneering venture in this respect. Other denominations in Christianity and in other faith communities are taking small but significant leads. So is Cecil simply saying that central and local government social policy needs to take more notice of these leads? That surely is something we should be saying wherever we have an appropriate opportunity.

Perhaps one of the exercises to be undertaken in the near future is to see how far material produced by Quakers can be usefully worked into a study/reflection pack of some kind. Other churches and concerned groups are already hard at work in this area. The Leveson Centre for the Study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy has already begun this task and we could learn much from and with them. We can also learn from the hospice movement.

Genius in old age

In the search for a positive approach to later years it has often been pointed out that many of us in older years have learned to love the late music of Haydn, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Louis Armstrong and so on, the late art of Leonardo, Turner, Spenser and so on, the late writing of many poets and novelists. Perhaps we need to search for our own 'genius' in older age. Can we offer more confidently to our secular society the inspiration we find to live all the years of our lives with hope? Perhaps we do need a new testimony about late age and indeed dying, although not before we have taken the full measure of what is already offered us. Or are we who are still tolerably able-bodied and fairly clear-minded too preoccupied with individualistic, material realities to remember that we too are dying - later if not sooner - and we had better check our bearings now! Maybe Cecil Sharman is giving us the new form of the old evangelical call to repent, that is, think again and soon, not just in matters of social policy but in our personal and corporate grappling with the real nature of our human living-dying. What do we feel is now that end in which we might find a new beginning? Do we know? Could we do more to find out?

1 Without Nightfall upon the Spirit, Mary C Morrison, Pendle Hill.

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