James Woodward with Helen Randall

There is still hope for people like me.

On Monday night James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College in Salisbury, came to St Bride's Liverpool to tell us about his research on ageing. Growing older, he told us, is something people often fear. In our culture the elderly are often omitted from plans and arrangements so ageism becomes a barrier to inclusion.

We do strange things with what we fear. Our uncertainties and paradoxes get hardened into phobias and prejudices. We all need to befriend the ageing stranger in ourselves.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, the older we get the more spiritual we become. We become more open to the numinous. Why? Partly because getting older means getting closer to death. Partly, also, because as we age we become more aware of how much we have messed up in our lives. As we realise our faults we are more inclined to confront ourselves. Previously hidden features of ourselves get revealed. These changes are expressed in a number of ways.

  • We have a stronger sense of the paradox of life.
  • We become less egoistic and more altruistic.
  • We become more selective about relationships. We do not need to keep in touch with such a wide range of people.
  • We develop a greater distinction between self and role.
  • We become more aware that possessions can limit.
  • We may develop greater willingness to be outrageous.
  • There is rediscovery of childhood. Grandparents are often better with children than parents are.
  • We hold fewer beliefs, but hold them more intensely.
  • We often become powerful advocates for social justice.

What can older people teach the rest of us?

  • To slow down and pay more attention to the present moment. Individualism and materialism distort what time does.
  • To live with vulnerability. We need to be able to embrace our fragility.
  • To let go of our possessions, our ego and, eventually, our lives.

What do these research findings tell us? On a social level, that we need to redesign our communities to be more inclusive of older people, partly for their own sakes but also largely for the sake of other people.

On an individual level, to be unafraid of getting older. There are losses, but there are also gains. To be older is to be more vulnerable, but we often need reminding that we are all vulnerable anyway. We depend on other people and the forces of nature all the time. Life would be impossible without all the processes that support it. We know about some of these processes but there are countless others we do not know about. We are utterly dependent anyway, so it is good to accept it.

To be older is to be closer to death. We shall all die one day. When we are young, our death seems so far away in the future that we easily discount it. Whatever we are going to achieve, we want to see the results ourselves. When we get older the timeframe of our own lives gets shortened. We could stop caring about the longer future, but in practice many older people transfer their hopes and ambitions to their children and grandchildren. It is their well-being, not one’s own, that matters.

To me, one sign of ageing is the local swings and roundabouts. Time was when I would have been pushing and shoving to grab my turn on them. Now, I sit on the bench and watch my grandchildren on them.

Does this give me as much pleasure as being on them gave me all those years ago? Who can measure? Both are right for their time. We take our turn at each, and when our turn is over we make way for others.

If we have learned to let go of our self-centredness and value others as we value ourselves, we do not cling to what was once exciting. Instead we take our pleasure in the excitement it gives to others.