I have just read with great interest Extra Time: Ten lessons for an ageing world (Harper Collins, London 2019) by Camilla Cavendish, a British journalist who became head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and now sits in the House of Lords.
The title is taken from the world of football, where ‘extra time’ is the period when there’s everything still to play for. That, she writes, will be true for many of us. The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in three babies born in Britain today will live to 100. Currently in the UK the average life expectancy is 82 for women, and 80 for men. However, she says, living longer is not a blessing unless it is living better for longer. This is the context in which she sets out ‘ten lessons for an ageing world’:
- Demography tips the balance of power.
- The stages of life are changing
- If exercise and diet were a pill, we would take it
- Don’t give up the day job
- Old brains can learn new tricks – and they must keep in shape
- Immortality isn’t here yet, but anti-ageing drugs are on the way
- Everyone needs a neighbourhood
- Robots care for you, humans care about you
- Purpose is vital
- We need a new social contract
Although Extra Time is a secular book – faith and religion do not feature – nonetheless as a Christian I found there is much to ponder upon.
For instance, ‘demography tips the balance of power’. By 2020 there will be more people on the planet over 65 than under five, with more grandparents than grandchildren. Indeed in 2013 more nappies were sold in Japan for elderly incontinent people than for babies! The question arises: what are the churches doing about the ‘boom generation’ of older people? In most churches, the honest answer is ‘nothing of any significance’. For instance, while evangelistic efforts for young people abound, churches rarely include any outreach events specifically for older people. Many churches have youth workers and youth ministers, but far fewer have people set aside to work among older people – and if they do then the focus is on ‘caring’. The enormous potential for older people to grow and develop tends to be ignored – instead older people are seen as weak and dependent who need to be entertained.
‘The stages of life are changing’. Almost without noticing, we have created an entirely new stage of life – an extended middle age. ‘We need to realise it’s not old age that is getting longer, it’s middle age’, which according to Cavendish goes up to seventy-five! She notes that in America three-quarters of people under 75 have no problem with hearing or vision, no difficulty walking, and no form of cognitive impairment. Step up a generation, to those aged 75 and 85, and half have none of those disabilities. Old age, she declares, relates to the last fifteen years of life. To what extent have churches recognised the extent of the new middle age and all the potential for service which it represents?
This in turn is linked with Cavendish’s fourth lesson: ‘Don’t give up the day job’. Retirement, she believes, can make us old. Instead most of us will need to keep going and earning, if we are not to become a burden on the state. As it is, only 64% of 55-to 64-year olds in the UK are currently at work! In church terms, this means that we need not just to allow but encourage our ministers to keep going. By contrast, when I was 64 I received a letter from the Ministry Department of the Baptist Union of Great Britain urging me to give way to younger people by retiring at the age of 65 – sensibly I ignored the letter and kept going as a stipendiary minister until I was 70!
I was fascinated by her seventh lesson: ‘everyone needs a neighbourhood’. In this regard Cavendish quotes George Vaillant: ‘The key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships’. Within a church context, this means that we need to get out of our church ghettoes and cultivate relationships within the community as a whole. Think of all the good that come out of that!
I was also interested by her ninth lesson: ‘Purpose is vital’. Extra time, writes Cavendish ‘should be a gift. yet time can hang heavy on us, if we don’t know what to do with it. When half of all 75-year-olds say the TV is their main form of company, something has gone disastrously wrong. We humans need purpose, to live fulfilling lives.’ She quotes the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging which found that people who felt useful in their seventies were significantly less likely to develop health problems or die than those that didn’t. When I retired at 70, I developed a five-year plan. Last month I sat down and drew up a three-year plan. Yes, inevitably plans at this stage of life need to be written in pencil, for we are increasingly vulnerable people, but goals there should be!
Let me end with some words from Abraham Lincoln which Cavendish quotes:
“In the end it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years”.