Is the Church of England Guilty of Ageism?

by the Revd Canon Prof James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College, Salisbury

James Woodward

“It has been widely said that whatever many may say about the future, it is ours – not only that it may happen to us, but it is in part made by us”    (Dr Ethel Andurus, Social Activist 1844 – 1967)

 “To deny old age is to invite anarchy into our lives.”

The World Health Organisation defines Ageism as the “stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people based on their age”. Given the subjectivity of the ways in which we construct our attitudes and the way they shape action it is difficult to know how widespread ageism is. There is, however, a persistence in our negative visualisation and stereotypes surrounding the older person, which cumulatively has the potential to have significantly harmful effects on older adults.

In my pastoral experience of listening carefully to older people, I have come to understand how ageism for older adults is an everyday challenge. Sadly this is particularly the case in religious institutions and communities where there might be anxiety about decline and particular perceptions about the predominance of older people in such places. There is well-documented evidence that older people are overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media. In the light of this we might conclude that ageism marginalises and excludes older people in their communities.

Although there is substantial evidence about the many contributions that older people make to their societies, they are frequently stereotyped as dependent, frail, out of touch, or a burden. These ageist attitudes limit older people’s freedom to live the lives they choose and our capacity to capitalise on the great human capacity that older people represent.

When we consider the diversity of human life and its flourishing we rightly celebrate the fact that there is no typical older person. Older age is characterised by great diversity. Some 80-year-olds have levels of physical and mental capacity that compare favourably with 20-year-olds. Others of the same age may require extensive care and support. We might ask how we work together to improve the functional ability of all older people.

This diversity in older age is not random. A large proportion of the diversity in capacity and circumstance observed in older age is the result of the cumulative impact of advantage and disadvantage across people’s lives. The physical and social environments in which we live are powerful influences on our flourishing. The relationships we have with our environments are shaped by factors such as the family we were born into, our sex, our ethnicity, and financial resources. Equality, justice and a commitment to reducing such inequities amidst diversity of choice and opportunity must form part of our desire to root out age discrimination. If flourishing and justice are linked then we hold onto the fact that  older people with the greatest health-related needs often have the least economic and social resources available to meet them.

In some organisations, but particularly the churches, there can be a tendency to stereotype older people as being resistant to change, lacking creativity, overcautious, slow in judgement making, uninterested in change and difficult to motivate into different ways of looking at life and especially the inner life of the soul. These attitudes formed the basis of age related discrimination.

In the stereotyping of older people as fixed within a paradigm of diminishment and decline we should be aware that only a small proportion of older people are dependent on others for care. In fact, older people make many contributions to their families and societies. Contributions older people make through taxation, consumer spending and other economically valuable activities were worth nearly GBP 40 billion more than expenditure on them through pensions, welfare and health care combined.

Ageist prejudice can involve the expression of derogatory attitudes, which may then lead to the use of discriminatory behaviour. Stereotyping and prejudice against different groups in society does not take the same form. Age-based prejudice and stereotyping usually involves older or younger people being pitied, marginalized, or patronized. This is described as “benevolent prejudice” because the tendency to pity is linked to seeing older or younger people as “friendly” but “incompetent.” The perception of incompetence means older people can be seen as “not up to the job” or “a menace on the roads,” when there is little or exaggerated evidence to support this. Prejudice also leads to assumptions that it is “natural” for older people to have lower expectations, reduced choice and control, and less account taken of their views

We have acknowledge that a persuasive ageism exists in both Church and society. There are forces that combine to keep older people on the margins, to make them redundant, useless, a statistic to be feared as part of the picture of decline. We need to ask why we have so few positive images of ageing or perhaps ask how we might nurture and generate a range of positive images that allow us to see how older people might liberate us into a different perspective on living flourishing and faith.

Some years ago an Archbishop of Canterbury was asked in a media interview to describe how he saw the Church today. He said he hoped that the Church would grow progressively younger. The Church today seemed to him rather like a very old grandmother, who sat by the chimney-breast muttering to herself, ignored by the rest of the family and out of touch with its culture.  This image could be said to be typical of the Churches ageism, with which we collude. We seem unable to embrace and affirm an all-age Church, within which older people are valued partners. Taken further we might ask what older people might have to teach us about the shape and practice of faith. The question, in the light of our awareness of ageism and stereotyping is whether in our processes of reflection about age we see older people as a resource rather than a problem.

We might want to take a different view as we take stock of the age-profile of our communities, with a view to celebrating the contribution that older people make to the life of both Church and society. Consider who holds positions of responsibility. Reflect on the hidden work of care — unpaid care of older family members, the love and encouragement of grandparents, and the acts of kindness expressed by neighbours who have time to consider the little things that help life along, such as shopping, advice about heating, benefits, or a difficult letter. Go further, and see these people, grey and slower as they may be, in the time-line of the past decades of your church, and imagine their sustaining presence amid all the changing fortunes of history.

Age can be a wise and challenging teacher. Older people can show how little time we give, in all our bureaucracy and busyness, to consider what substance and depth mean in being human. It is no accident that older people become more spiritual, and that they can help us to perceive that age is essentially a spiritual task.

How might the Churches work together in moving age, older people, and our responsibility to them further up the political agenda? How can those with the power to engage with ageism deal with the impoverishment of living that some older people embrace?  We might act as advocates for older people in helping them to negotiate the complex world of health and social services. All Churches should help people to voice their concerns to professionals.  We can ask those who set policy how older people might enjoy all the benefits of a modern society. In this way, we can ensure that the needs of older people are moved up the political agenda.

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