Many of us would not be here now if it were not for our National Health Service. And that includes me: I belong to the sisterhood that speaks from experience of biopsies, surgery, chemotherapy, prostheses and wigs, although I didn’t experience all of them. Which makes what’s happening now so Kafkaesque that we can’t believe it’s not in a war zone but here, in our first world country.
I’m not going rehash the current news, even those that set my hair on end about elderly ladies with dementia discharged from hospital without their families being informed, still in their sleepwear with their clothes in a bag, deposited outside their homes – in this weather! – unable to find a key and rescued by neighbours. Thank God for good neighbours. (A recent story is here – https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5247580/gran-with-dementia-discharged-from-hospital-on-christmas-day-and-dumped-on-her-doorstep-in-the-rain-with-no-keys/) I say recent story because similar episodes are reported each year. One time I telephoned the press officer of the hospital concerned and she was as upset as I was. What sort of person puts a frail old lady into a taxi by herself without checking there would be someone at home for her?
Instead, I’d like to look at one the ways that older people can stay out of hospital. We all know the importance of exercise, diet, and staying socially connected. What we don’t hear about often is the importance of keeping a good sense of balance, even though falls are one of the major reasons older people end up in hospital.
There are physical reasons that balance becomes dodgy as we age. Inside our brains there’s a kind of gyroscope, a vestibular system that tells us where we are in space and which way is up. This deteriorates as cells die off and doesn’t give such swift corrections when we are older. So we can tilt over the tipping point before we know it.
Also, we lose muscle mass and strength as we age, and that means losing power — a function of strength and speed — which affects balance, too. If you start to trip, power helps you react swiftly. Exercise can help you rebuild strength and power, or at least slow the pace of decline. Walking is particularly good.
There are a number of other things, too, including low blood pressure, the effects of medication, and poor eyesight.
An easy to read article by Harvard Medical School give some very good tips for strengthening a sense of balance. They’re quite simple and easy to do – for example, standing up from a chair several times, and doing some easy wall planks. You can read it here: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/our-best-balance-boosters?utm_source=delivra&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=GB20180103-Balance&utm_id=763310&dlv-ga-memberid=10759978&mid=10759978&ml=763310
The most pessimistic about advancing years, in a survey by an American discount club for seniors, were young adults, while the most contented were the older group. On every aspect of ageing, the young ones were consistently gloomier than the older adults. The young ones were also the least satisfied with their lives.
It confirms a growing body of research showing that old age is a contented, even joyful time! You feel better when you’re older. Study after study reveals that older people are generally happier, more satisfied, less depressed and anxious, and less stressed than younger respondents. Improved mental health in old age could be due to the wisdom people acquire as they grow older, say researchers. It’s what the Bible refers to as ‘proven character’ (Romans 5: 4-6). Psychologist James Hillman wrote “let us entertain the idea that character requires the additional years and that the long last of life is forced upon us neither by genes nor by conservational medicine nor by societal collusion. The last years conform and fulfil character.” [ii]
An international authority on geriatric medicine and eldercare, Dr William H Thomas, said, ‘I endorse ageing – because it is ageing that is going to save us.’[i] He sees older people as the elders of society, the balancing factor and the glue that holds it together.
Professor Laura Carstensen, Professor of Psychology and Professor in Public Policy at Stanford University, sees old age as being an enjoyable time. She said, ‘Older people are more positive in their outlook and less inclined to negativity, have increased knowledge and expertise, are more given to reconciliation than confrontation, and have better balanced emotional lives.’
Psychologist Arthur Stone (University Southern California) said “There’s lots of speculation about why older people are happier and having better moods even when their cognitive and physical health is in decline, but we still don’t have anything that fully explains what is going on,” he said. “It’s a big puzzle, and an important puzzle.”
But it’s only a puzzle if you don’t know that God deliberately designed old age, with special purposes for older people. He promised long life as a blessing (Psalm 96:16).
Living to old age creates the qualities that God intended to benefit the rest of society: those that psychologist Laura Carstensen and Dr William Thomas (and others) say must be recognised and ‘released’ for the benefit of us all. With contentment, wisdom, better emotional balance and more, it’s good for individuals, too!
The keys to an effective, purpose filled old age are described in Chapter 7 of the new book, ‘What’s Age Got To Do with It?’. Available from https://www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk/shop/whats-age-got-to-do-with-it, or Eden Books online, or Amazon.
[ii] The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, 1999
Did you know that you are worth about £3.5 million to society? And that if every adult in the UK under the age of 75 walked for 30 minutes a day the national debt of £1.7 trillion (and counting) would soon be paid off? Unrelated facts maybe, but with solid common ground.
Simon French, chief economist at one of our oldest and most respected Investment Banks, says that ‘Health economists use a metric called “the value of statistical life” to determine the value that society places on avoiding the death of an unidentified individual. In the UK this is estimated at about £3.5 million. ‘[i] I may be reading this wrongly, but it’s encouraging to begin the New Year knowing that I’m worth £3.5 million. (is there some way of cashing in even a small part of this, I wonder?) I’m not good at statistics, so read and re-read the article in The Times to make sure I was understanding it correctly. But the author knows his stuff.
The walking refers to the cost of health and care support for growing numbers of older people. The cost to the Exchequer in health and social care spending is expected to rise from 8% of GDP (gross domestic product) to 14.6% over the next 50 years. All those 30 minutes walks a day would mean 22,196 fewer deaths per year, which over five years would equate to a societal value of £448 billion through reduced costs of care (both formal and informal) and less time off work because of illness. That would soon pay off the national debt of £1.7 trillion (and counting).
Not having to service the national debt would mean more money available to benefit all of us. But to the ordinary man (or woman) in the street, these astronomical figures are too theoretical and afar off. As Professor Northcote Parkinson observed[ii], us smaller minded mortals will spend more time arguing about the cost of a new tea urn for the caff than a new nuclear-powered electricity generator for the city. Perhaps, thinking of the value of each individual, the government could think of a practical investment that would incentivise us, say, £5 for each 30 minute walk? We could be given Fit-Bits that monitored our walks which, when tapped at the supermarket would give us a discount on the cost of our (healthy) grocery shop?
Now the chief of NHS England, Simon Stevens is urging GPs to take up “social prescribing”, such as joining tango dancing or book clubs, after research found it cut GP visits and trips to Accident and Emergency units by more than a quarter. Mr Stevens said, “Family doctors tell us the best help they offer some patients is connecting them with local sports, arts and voluntary organisations. For people who are stressed or depressed, who have chronic pain, or with other long term health problems, social prescribing is often worth trying either in place of drugs or alongside other usual care.’[iii]
There’s also increasing evidence that being a volunteer is good for your health. Some GPs are pointing patients down this path. One study rated it as the equivalent of a 50 per percent rise in salary! In an article in our current Pilgrims’ Magazine[iv], one of our volunteers describes what it means to her, https://www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=f26b13ef-f51b-48f0-ac31-49310abea7f6
[i] The Times, Wednesday, Decembeer 27 2017
[ii] Parkinson’s Law or The Pursuit of Progress
The headline was on the front page of a national newspaper, tucked beneath a coloured banner directing readers to an article inside about a Christmas dinner cooked by professionals. I had images of everyone over the age of 50 sitting behind their Christmas dinners with a huge pile of spinach nestling alongside the turkey and roast potatoes. Well, let’s face it, if it were true, we’d all eat spinach for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of our lives.
But sadly, it isn’t true. The article was commenting on research by Rush University in Chicago, which has a Centre for Ageing that has produced some excellent studies about the causes of dementia. Researchers didn’t say that if you eat spinach you will not develop dementia. They were looking at the effects of diet on the health of the brain, and showed that adding a daily serving of green, leafy vegetables to your diet may be a simple way to foster brain health. Dr James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer’s Society said, ‘the researchers did not directly look at dementia, so we cannot say that it would delay or prevent the onset of the condition.’[i]
Headlines with the words ‘dementia, cure, or prevent’ are nearly always front-page stories, whether they are true or not. In the past few years there have been any number of articles about various foods and diets that are said to prevent dementia, even including green tea and chocolate, Brazil nuts and more. (Chocolate was a great disappointment. If you ate enough to make a difference you’d probably die from diabetes.)
One fairly large study showed that people who drank tea had happier lives than those who drank coffee – and as depression is a risk factor for dementia – hey presto! we should all drink tea. More moderate observers noted that drinking tea was only a tiny part of a person’s life, and that the person’s whole lifestyle was more important.
That’s the real point. One of the longest studies in the world showed that a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, a good diet (Mediterranean is recommended), not smoking and only moderate alcohol intake, and staying socially connected helps prevent dementia. You can look it up here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-29820916.
It’s good advice for Christmas time. Eat well, (including spinach if you like!) go lightly with the wine, go for a good walk or two, and enjoy the company. Experts say that interacting with each other is better for our brains than any kind of brain-training activity.
[i] daily express, Thursday, December 21, 2017.
It seems that every charity and church in the UK is doing its best to make sure that no one is lonely this Christmas. Premier Christian Media is running a campaign in its daily digital news to ensure that no one spends Christmas alone, inviting churches to enter details of their Christmas events, so they can be entered a map which Premier is showing on its website. You can find out about it here – https://www.premier.org.uk/Projects/Christmas-Alone?utm_source=Premier%20Christian%20Media&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=8989319_Christmas%20Alone%2014%2F12&dm_i=OXC,5COX0,IPCG34,KOUOP,1
(There’s a helpful leaflet, called ‘Christmas Conversations’ on the Faith in Later Life website, at https://faithinlaterlife.org/fill-resource/christmas-conversations/)
After all the warm and happy Christmas events, churches will do their best to keep in touch with people who came in from the surrounding communities.
But there’s a kind of isolation of the soul that we are not very good at tackling. Bereavement can create the deepest sort of loneliness, and Christmas and New Year can be the worst times. Last Christmas, in a feature about loneliness, the BBC interviewed a 96-year-old whose wife had died a couple of years’ earlier. He’d spent the Christmas period with his daughter and her family so it wasn’t that he was lacking company. But back in his own home, as he watched the New Year in on television, something he’d done for so many years with his wife, he was overwhelmed with loneliness.
A week or so ago I heard about a 74-year-old who sank into grief when his wife died, and neglected himself and his home so badly that he was brought to the attention of Social Services. They helped sort his life out, but now the best help is coming from a volunteer, a retired doctor in the befriending team of a local church. He’s coming alongside, taking time to listen.
People who’ve been bereaved often say that they feel ignored, because people don’t know what to say to them. At a workshop on loneliness in a chapel in a Welsh valley a woman said that after her husband died no one from the church fellowship visited her except the pastor, and that was because it was part of his job. We tend to stay away from situations where we feel uncomfortable. (Ecclesiastes 7:2 has an interesting take on this.)
Yet we are encouraged to comfort those who grieve. The best way is often simply by listening. The person who’s been bereaved often wants to talk about the person who has just died. When the wife of a friend of mine died, unexpectedly and much too young, my friend would call in and have a cup of tea, and just talk about her and their lives together.
It’s also good to offer practical help. It may not be accepted, but it’s a reaching out, still. It shows that you’re meaningful and not just here for the moment.
And that’s what we’re trying to do at Christmas. So as well as scooping up the lonely, keep an eye out for those feeling that isolation of the soul. Come alongside, and listen.
Writer Christopher Matthew, (78), asks – how do you know when you are growing old? He observes that there was a time not so long ago when you knew that you were old. He describes how his father and mother, ‘like countless others of their generation knew instinctively when old age had arrived and behaved appropriately.’ *
But how much was that ‘instinctive acceptance’ generated by their expectations, which in turn sprang from yester-years’ experience? Because today’s older generation are, by and large, healthier and more active than any before them. There are people in their 90s and 100s who are still enjoying their work, with even a handful running races , swimming and doing yoga. Judith Kerr, who writes children’s stories published her most recent book at the age of 94.
The conclusion Mr Matthew reaches is that ‘old age is not necessarily for old people. It is purely for people who suffer from old age.” In other words, if you’re fit and reasonably healthy, then you don’t feel old, so you don’t ‘live old’. Which makes sense, when you think about it.
Although there are a number of people coping with frailties in old age, there are more who are fairly robust. So many churches tell us that the people who are cooking for their cafes, organising their community outreach and so on are well into their retirement.
We’d better shake our feathers, because a recent report by economist John Hawksworth says that, the health of our future economies depend on encouraging older people to stay in the workforce. BMW in Germany has adapted its working environment to suit older people, as well as young.
It’s worth reading Chapter 7 in my new book, which has a list of checkpoints for well-being in old age. They are checks, balances and strategies best put in place now! You can buy the book through our website, www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk
*Daily Express, 1st December 2017
Yesterday, I found myself being asked questions by a researcher for a theological project that had been answered in my first book about dementia, ‘Could it Be Dementia? Losing your mind doesn’t mean losing your soul.’ While going through the manuscript to make sure I hadn’t imagined it, I came across a little piece about how reading (and possibly using) the language of Shakespeare strengthens your brain. There’s a lot about today about digital brain training programs, but experts agree that, in the main, they train your brain in that particular process only. Not everybody likes digital games, anyway. So here’s what I found in 2007 (the book was published in 2008).
“Read Shakespeare or the Authorised Version
If you do not like technology, you can turn to language. Shakespeare is good for your brain, say researchers at the University of Liverpool. They are looking to see if wrestling with the differently structured use of language could help to prevent dementia. (Good news for aficionados of the original King James Version of the Bible.) Monitoring participants with brain-imaging equipment they found that certain lines from Shakespeare and other great writers such as Chaucer and Wordsworth caused the brain to spark with electrical activity because of the unusual words or sentence structure. And researchers at York University in Toronto say that people who are bilingual and speak both languages every day for most of their lives can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years, compared with those who only know one language.  The Western Mail in South Wales was quick to pounce on this story and ran it with the headline, ‘Learn Welsh and fight off the onset of dementia’. ”
Time to brush up your Shakespeare! And to enthuse you, here’s the lively little song on Youtube:
‘How are older people empowered by your church?’ we asked people taking part in our survey at New Wine, a few weeks ago. Around 22,000 adults came to New Wine so we weren’t short of participants! (And if any of you are reading this blog – a BIG THANK YOU!)
Older people can be like candles, lighting up the congregation – if they themselves have been lit by encouragement from others.
Are your seniors encouraged to do things for others, or are they seen as a recipient group, needing support themselves? In other words, are they servants, or needing to be served?
‘Do you feel that your church’s seniors are fully engaged in church activities?’ Answers varied from, ‘No, we could think harder about this,’ to ‘Probably not’, to ‘Mostly, but some just come for the companionship, tea and cakes,’ to ‘Yes, very engaged and active’ from a church were some seniors are elders and leaders. Here’s my favourite:
‘[They are] involved in welcoming/hospitality/small prayer groups. They encourage and support younger people, giving guidance, including financial advice. They reach out to others, sharing the wisdom and gifts and insights from the Lord and His Word.’ (My italics.)
Another said, ‘[Older people are] at our heart. All roles within church including pastoral, prayer meeing, except physical lifting.’ Which is absolutely lovely: a reflection of the biblical Levites (Numbers 8:25)!
Some participants said that they would like more younger members, as they now have more older than younger, but rather than neglecting their seniors in a push for the younger, they were being involved in their outreach. It wasn’t a case of seniors having to ‘move out of their comfort zone to accommodate the young’, as one pastor is reported as saying, but seniors encouraged to be involved, having a heart for the work. Most older people would love to see more young folk in their churches. They would also love to be able to help them more – to give financial and other advice, and to listen and pray.
God always intended that His seniors take their place in His church, and in His world. The broadcaster Debbie Thrower, whose work as a lay chaplain for older people in Winchester diocese led to the setting up of the Anna Chaplaincy network sees great opportunities for the Church. “Old age can be an intensely spiritual period of life: I saw my own parents grow spiritually, and I felt that we don’t make the most of this period.” [i]
Often older people are held back because they have a poor view of themselves. They have been ‘infected’ by secular ageism which says old age is when people are past it. Which is totally untrue, of course. God designed old age on purpose. Have a look at the special attributes that seniors have, and how to make the most of them, in What’s Age Got To Do With It? Only 17 days to go to its release!
It used to be thought that the 100 year life was science fiction. Not any more. The number of 100 year olds and people in their 90s is growing, year on year. And they are not in wheelchairs. They are active, in one way or another, writing books, teaching yoga, running marathons, and helping to care for their grandchildren. It’s as a famous science writer observed, ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ It begs the question, if you want to live a full, satisfying life, what do you need to do? And – what do you need to avoid?
In other words, how not to be knackered at 90?
Let me explain this word ‘knackered.’ It’s an English colloquial expression described by the Urban dictionary as a ‘word used to describe a person or object that is spent beyond all reasonable use as in “He is only fit for the knacker’s yard”. The knacker’s yard was where injured and worn out horses were taken to be slaughtered. ‘Spent beyond all reasonable use’, ‘worn out to the point of extinction’ is encapsulated in this one word, and I haven’t found another that does the job as well. When I ran it by my pastor he said he knew people who were knackered at forty, never mind ninety.
It’s something you do not want to be, at any age. In What’s age Got To Do With It are people who are ninety and older, but they are not knackered. They may have had arthritis, creaky knees, and some of the various ailments that come with old age, but they are not ‘spent beyond all reasonable use.’ I tell the story of George, totally paralysed, breathing through a tube and unable to move, who did the shopping (via computer), befriended others, encouraged his wife, and helped educate his daughter.
So what is it about them? What did they have, and how can we prepare now, whatever our age, for when we will be ninety?
It’s not to do with physical exercise, although that’s a Good Thing. It isn’t to do with healthy eating, either, although that, too, is also a Good Thing. Other Good Things not to be sniffed at are getting a good night’s sleep; staying socially connected and continually learning new things. The main thing to know about how not to be knackered at ninety is that you need to have a sense of purpose, and be prepared to persevere. George persevered because he wanted to enjoy his family to the last second of his life. The biblical Jacob persevered because he wanted to marry his beloved Rachel.
Perseverance is one of the most important attributes to successful living in old age, or indeed, at any time of life. In business, pundits say it’s the key to success. In his letter to the Christians at Rome Paul reminded them that persevering through difficult times builds character, and that proven character produces hope; ‘and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.’ So the ability to persevere is both a sign of character, and at the same time something that builds character.
It makes all the difference in the world knowing that we are here by design, not by accident. God’s life design includes old age, for a very good reason. Each older person has a distinct purpose in life.
In What’s Age Got to Do With It? are check-points that tell if you are ready for the future – and what to do if you aren’t!
The book will be available from 22nd September through regular retail outlets and our Pilgrims’ Friend Society website www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk
Christian providers of respite, residential, nursing and dementia care. Also retirement apartments for assisted living and for extra care housing, and fully equipped houses for missionaries' home leave.
We share our experience and knowledge at seminars and conferences, at national and regional level.