Tag Archives: old age

30 July: Table talk

Everything stops for tea.

The elderly lady that Arthur and I garden for now lives alone in the house that was her bed and breakfast business. She constantly gave of herself to her family and guests with beautiful food, but now relies on carers to put her meals on the table, because sometimes she forgets important things like eating.

Today we were talking about this experience of giving back to God some of our faculties in old age and being cared for. ‘That is true,’ she said, ‘but we can still sit around the table and enjoy a cup of tea and good company. That is good, thank you for coming to see me.’

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16 July: My Vocation today XIX, welcome!

Pope Francis has been proclaiming the important place of old people. The wisdom of his teaching has come home to me – quite literally – recently.

Home. My mother is in her nineties and lives some distance away from us in Canterbury. During the pandemic we did not visit, and local visitors were talking to her from the back door, so it was good for both sides when Mrs T came with me to see her. ‘You will be fed!’ she said, and we were, though she takes a labour-saving approach to shopping and cooking: on-line orders and prepared vegetables. And of course there were conversations until late. Setting the world to rights.

Back to Kent and time to do Mrs E’s garden. Mrs E used to run a guest house, a B&B before Air BnB. It was a true vocation, making strangers welcome. Now widowed, she lives with dementia, is often confused, but always brings me a cup of tea during the morning. Her instinct for hospitality remains strong! So far she remains in her home, with the help of carers, and is able to welcome friends for tea and biscuits.

I used to visit a convent to see one of the sisters on church business, but the sister who answered the door would always raise my spirits. The first time we met she told me, ‘Mostly we look after old people here.’ This from an old lady, walking with two sticks, and bent double. Making the stranger welcome is one of the seven works of mercy, and so is visiting the infirm. One good turn generates another in a virtuous circle.

How can I make someone welcome this week? Who might like a visit from me?

Here is a link to the US Bishops’ interesting reflections on the works of mercy.

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1 April 2022, Praying with Pope Francis: health care workers

Photograph by CD

We pray for health care workers who serve the sick and the elderly, especially in the poorest countries; may they be adequately supported by governments and local communities.

Closed doors at the end of a corridor. Inside consulting rooms, doctors, nurses, therapists still see patients, one-to-one, even if under covid-19 many appointments are on line or over the phone. It’s easy to forget that behind those doors are people working harder than they should, for longer than they should.

Let us be conscious of the sacrifices they are making, day after day, to keep us all safe; also of the stress, exhaustion and burn out they endure; of their families who see less of them and see them at the end of their tether, trying to summon the energy to be a spouse, partner, parent.

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21 March: It’s not a disease.

This post is from an article by Dominique Greiner in Croire-La Croix of 4.02.2022. In it he cites Pope Francis urging us to be conscious of old people as our elder brothers and sisters worthy of our respect, worthy of our spending time with them.

Growing  old is not a disease nor a cause for sadness. Old age is a new stage of our life. For sure it can be marked by a decline in strength and various unpleasantnesses due to age, but that doesn’t take away anything  from people’s dignity or the respect that is their due.

Pope Francis has denounced the abandonment of old people as a hidden euthanasia, brought about by our throwaway culture. “Old People’s Care Homes should be the lungs of humanity in a country, a neighbourhood, a parish.  They should be sanctuaries of humanity, where a person who is old and frail is treated like an elder brother or sister.” In other words, caring for old people is not just for the professionals. Each one of us should feel concerned about the well-being of our elders. Even if we only visit them regularly, we are showing them that we haven’t abandoned them, and they are still important in our eyes.

So who in our neighbourhood or extended family should be receiving a word, a letter, an email, a visit from you or me these next few days? And what about a thought and a prayer for the carers who enable families to live their own lives, with their own duties and responsibilities?

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20 March: On not reinventing the wheel.

Two young mothers pushing their babies on Margate prom. Their buggies double up as shopping trolleys.

The discussion drifted to mobility and the challenges posed by diminishing powers in later life.

Jane had struggled with herself to adopt a walking stick, and then a walker with a seat and shopping box. ‘But that was silly of me, because now I can get down to the shops and the promenade.’ The thought of not seeing the sea, though living so close, had steeled her to swallow her pride and try the aids.

‘I can do so much more now’, she says.

Reinventing the wheel or even the walking stick seems excessive, but many of us learn the hard way. Jane would tell you how its tempting to be too self-reliant, too independent. In the 1980’s people in big mental hospitals were released into ‘the community’ to live independently; often in a one bedroom flat somewhere completely unknown to the person concerned who would have been incarcerated for decades.

‘The community’ did not exist for them unless someone made an effort to befriend them.

Jane’s first walker trolley was given to her by a fellow member of the exercise group, who had another that suited her better. The group is a little community, even when meeting by zoom.

What can we learn from this little story? To accept help or advice graciously, to admit that no man (or woman) is an island entire of itself, not even me! So we are all responsible for each other, and are diminished if a neighbour suffers; we are, or should be, involved in mankind, conscious of each other’s needs and gifts.

No Man Is An Island by John Donne

No man is an island, 
Entire of itself, 
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thy friend's 
Or of thine own were: 
Any man's death diminishes me, 
Because I am involved in mankind, 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

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9 March: At last.

Udimore Church, Sussex.

This elegant memorial tablet must have a few stories to tell. Who was Widow Marshall? We are not told here her Christian name, nor her maiden name, just her longevity and her honourable status as a widow. Did any children of hers remain to follow her body to the grave?

A tablet in the church records: ‘Death will come at last. To the memory of Widow Marshall, late of this parish, who died the 9th day of March 1798. Aged 98 years. Erected by Benj. Cooper, gent of this parish.’ Poor Ben, though, followed the good widow into the grave at the age of only 38!

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11 February: What is amiss, let us amend.

A queue for covid vaccinations at Lichfield Cathedral. TB.

Feb. 11, 1784.

TO MRS. LUCY PORTER, IN LICHFIELD.

MY DEAREST LOVE,

I have been extremely ill of an asthma and dropsy, but received, by the mercy of GOD, sudden and unexpected relief last Thursday, by the discharge of twenty pints of water[11 litres]. Whether I shall continue free, or shall fill again, cannot be told. Pray for me.

Death, my dear, is very dreadful; let us think nothing worth our care but how to prepare for it: what we know amiss in ourselves let us make haste to amend, and put our trust in the mercy of GOD, and the intercession of our Saviour.

I am, dear Madam,

Your most humble servant,

SAM. JOHNSON.

Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784″ by James Boswell.

Lucy Porter was Johnson’s stepdaughter; he had married her widowed mother but she had died after just a few years. Although he lived and worked in London – the man who is tired of London is tired of life is his saying – he kept in touch with family and friends in Lichfield, his home town, including Lucy. At the time of writing he was an old man and sick; dropsy is now called oedema, a swelling of soft tissue especially in the legs, and may be an indication of heart failure – so carrying 11 kilos of extra weight in fluid was not good. Johnson does not say how his relief was brought about.

But his heartfelt love for his stepdaughter shines through, as well as his apprehension of death and judgement.

What is amiss, let us amend.

Amen to that!

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31 December: John Anderson my jo, John.

Robert Burns is Scotland’s poet of Hogmanay, New Year’s Eve. We’ve all heard, and probably sung, his ‘Auld Lang Syne’ over the years, but recently I came across this song which is full of hope, comfort and joy. Enjoy the song and Happy New Year! May it be full of happiness, friendship and peace and monie a canty day.

Will & Co.

John Anderson my jo.

John Anderson my jo, John,                                       my dear
    When we were first acquent,                                  acquainted
Your locks were like the raven,
      Your bonny brow was brent;                                 smooth
But now your brow is beld, John,                               bald
      Your locks are like the snaw,
but blessings on your frosty pow,                               head
      John Anderson, my jo!
John Anderson my jo, John,
      We clamb the hill thegither,                                  together
And monie a canty day, John,                                     cheerful                               
      We've had wi' ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,                               must
      And hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
      John Anderson, my jo!

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5 December: Keeping up appearances.

Off-duty peacock, almost invisible.

A dozen old boys from a small boarding school were meeting up over a Zoom link; a very flexible agenda led to discussion of clothes. Nobody seemed to agree with Erasmus’s adage, ‘Clothes make the man’.

The school was run by the Missionaries of Africa who have an unusual official habit, based on XIX Century North African menswear. No doubt that would be interpreted as ‘cultural appropriation’ in some quarters today, but it was intended to show respect for the local people and distance the society from the colonial power. This is from a 1960’s school photograph.


(Source: The Pelicans)

The principle of dressing like ordinary local people means the members of the society often do not wear clerical black, and the habit is now worn just for special occasions. (It takes a lot of washing and ironing.)

As for us former students, Mike, who lent this photo, newly retired from his service as a head teacher, paid a visit to his local charity shop to hand over all his formal suits, which he would never wear again. Freedom! Another told how he and his colleagues abandoned their ties after a high-up from head office gave some in-service training, tie-less. Yet another’s suits hung unworn since retirement, except for weddings and funerals; a fourth having lost weight, gave away all his old clothes to encourage himself not to put the pounds back on.

The suits and ties did not ‘make’ the men, rather they seemed to circumscribe them, to identify them as respectable workers who kept their hands clean. I found that being prepared to get dirty hands – gardening, fixing a puncture, measuring and sawing wood – was a good way to get alongside the excluded boys and girls I taught. A jacket and tie would have been a barrier day to day, but they came out for end-of-year presentations, our one formal event. And the Lord Mayor always wore his chain to give out the certificates; a visible acknowledgement of the work the young people had done over the year.

Clothes, whether splendid and luxurious or drab and plain, do not make the man. As Doctor Johnson once remarked, in answer to the arguments urged by Puritans, Quakers, etc. against showy decorations of the human figure: “Oh, let us not be found, when our Master calls us, ripping the lace off our waistcoats, but the spirit of contention from our souls and tongues! … Alas! Sir, a man who cannot get to heaven in a green coat will not find his way thither the sooner in a grey one.’

From “Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780” by James Boswell, via KIndle.

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22 November: On Glastonbury Tor

More inspired curiosity from Eddie Gilmore at The Irish Chaplaincy.

There are always interesting characters to be found on Glastonbury Tor and my latest visit was no exception.

I was having a few days of retreat at Downside Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Somerset not far from Glastonbury. On my previous stay at Downside I’d also climbed the Tor, on which occasion there was a large group of women performing some kind of ritual which included a circle dance and various incantations, as well as them laughing a lot and breaking out into the singing of old pop songs in the tower. There had been a nice energy about the group and I’d wished I could be part of it.

On this occasion I’d seized the opportunity of a sunny day on which to drive over and make the steep ascent. The Tor stands at about 180m and commands spectacular views in every direction, even, on such a clear day, all the way across the Bristol Channel to a point on the Welsh coast forty-five miles away. St Michael’s Tower is perched right on the top and I especially love to look through the archways on each side. They provide a pleasant framing of the view beyond. It has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries and the following day, it was explained to me later, it would be especially busy because of the Autumn equinox. The site is said to be on a certain ‘ley line’, believed to be routes of particular sacred energy going in a straight line across the country and linking particular holy places.

On my previous visit to the Tor I’d been reminded of a place on the Camino to Santiago with similarly vast and commanding views from a high point over the surrounding flat countryside and a sense that it was somewhere the ancient Celts might have described as being a ‘thin place’ i.e. there being a thin veil between earth and heaven. This time I was mainly relishing the uncommonly warm day and, like many of those who had made the climb, lying down in the sun. I was also, as I like to do, observing those around me! Of particular interest was a woman who appeared through the archway of the tower with an ivy chain around her head. She was closely followed by a second and then a third woman who were each of them similarly adorned, also carrying armfuls of ivy and other bits and pieces. ‘What’s going on here, then?’ I wondered. They proceeded to set up shop on the grass, creating a circle of ivy and other things and with a vase of flowers at the centre. And one of them was lighting some kind of incense. One or two similarly curious onlookers asked what they were doing and one of the three explained that they were performing a little ceremony for Mother Earth and getting rid of bad things from their lives and welcoming the new. A woman who until then had been sunbathing asked to join them and she was welcomed and crowned with an ivy chain. And then the ritual began, which included the ringing of a bell, the beating of a drum and one of the women moving round the circle spreading the sweet-melling incense. It was a little bit wacky but I suppose to many people these days the liturgies I’d been attending in the Abbey church might seem equally wacky. At any rate, seeing a ritual performed by women was a nice counterpoint to the exclusive maleness of that morning’s monastic Mass. I reflected as well that some of what the women were doing wasn’t too far from what the monks had been doing on the Sunday in their High Mass, at least in terms of the incense, with a deacon having gone round the altar with the thurible; except that the men didn’t have a bunch of pretty flowers in the middle!

It was then that I heard a guitar and singing coming from inside the tower and went to explore. A man was there and he had a lovely, gentle voice which was pleasantly amplified by the acoustics of the tower, and when he finished I clapped in appreciation, along with a couple who were listening as well. He was explaining to the couple in answer to them asking where he came from that he lived in Spain, although I could hear the unmistakable sound of a Dublin accent. After the couple made their leave I got chatting with him and he was interested to hear about my background and about the work of the Irish Chaplaincy. I asked him his name. He replied that he’d been born Denis (and a Roman Catholic) but had changed his name twenty years ago to Ananda. When I later checked the spelling with him he said, “It’s like Amanda but you just change the ‘m’ to an ‘n’!” He told me that the word in Hinduism, as in Buddhism and Jainism, denotes extreme happiness and is one of the highest states of being. He believed in the unity in all religions and as if to demonstrate that he sang to me a self-composed mantra which began, conventionally enough, with the words that had been sung that morning in the monastic Mass, ‘Kyrie eleison’, Lord have mercy. Ananda’s version continued, ‘Maria eleison, Mama eleison, Allah eleison, Buddha eleison’ before ending with another verse of ‘Kyrie eleison’.

He went on to tell me that he’d lived in Glastonbury for four year and had walked up the Tor every single day, rain or shine, with his guitar and it was his personal ministry to sing in the tower and chat to people. He also pointed out to me the Celtic connections with the area. An old legend has it that Patrick came back to Britain as an old man and gathered together some hermits in Glastonbury and became the first Abbot. What’s more, the carved figure of Brigid, patron saint of the Irish Chaplaincy as I explained to Ananda, is carved right there in St Michael’s Tower where we were speaking. Legend has it that she spent two years in Glastonbury in prayer before founding in Kildare her dual monastery, one for women and one for and men and over both of which she ruled as abbess.

Ananda was summoned to go and meet his wife, his ring tone being a nice bit of violin music! As he invited me to “go well” I decided it was time to be brave and engage with the ivy-clad women. I went over and asked if I could take a photo of their circle and one of them said with a smile, “Do you want the models in the picture?” I asked what the incense had been and was told it had been sage and myrrh. “Oh” I said, “sage was used by the native Americans to purify the atmosphere of bad vibes.” I happened to know that because when I’d been in a role at L’Arche that seemed to involve having a lot of tricky 1 to 1 meetings, my counterpart in L’Arche London, an American called Keith, used to tell me about the sprig of sage he kept hanging in his office for such meetings. We’d call one another sometimes and say, “So how much sage did you need to burn today?”

Later I went for a stroll in the town which is a truly fascinating place. On the residential street leading to the centre almost every other house has a statue of the Buddha in the window. Then there is the main street, which is a veritable hot-potch of what used to be called ‘New age mysticism’: tarot card reading, crystals, hypnotherapy, ‘Saturday morning yoga with Andrew’, the ‘Zen Music Shop’. Outside the C of E parish church a wizard had set up a stall, next to a man playing reggae music, and was waving cheerfully to passers-by. Ananda had told me that Glastonbury is home to seventy-three different religions and beliefs, the highest such concentration anywhere on the planet. There was even an RC church. How, I wondered, did they get on in the midst of the seventy-three?

I was kind of relieved to get back to the peace, and monotheism, of the monastery. Interestingly, the book being read that evening in the monastic refectory was by a Benedictine who made the observation that the professed religious life as we know it in the West is in terminal decline. The Downside community is typical in that most of the eight members are in their seventies or older and they are currently planning to leave their home of the last 150 years and move in with another, similarly diminishing, community. I agree with the prognosis of terminal decline and think we, the ever dwindling faithful in the Church need to be honest about that rather than hold our heads in the sand. I think there might not be more than a couple of decades left, in the West at any rate, of a tradition that goes back over 1600 years and which has had such a profoundly positive impact on civilisation, in such areas as healthcare and education, even in the development of champagne, thanks to Dom Pérignon, a French Benedictine monk.

What will take its place? The innate human yearning for meaning will still be there, and a need for ritual. Many of us will continue to seek places of stillness; and a sense of the sacred will be as strong as ever, however that finds its expression. My guess is that things could get even more eclectic and a whole lot more wacky! But I take comfort in the words of one of the spiritual greats (I’m afraid I can’t remember which one): “The good will out.”

Eddie Gilmore

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