Joanna Collicutt, SCOP Adviser

I haven’t dared tell my 86 year old father about my new job title: Oxford Diocesan Advisor for the Spiritual Care of Older People, because I know what he would say, ‘We’re not ‘older’ we’re old!’ But I think he would heartily agree that that folk of his age are people – human beings who should be treated accordingly.

I don’t think I’ve ever doubted this. I was extremely close to my maternal grandmother, a woman I knew when she was in her seventies, and who had the time and space to play with me when my parents were too busy, until her death when I was ten. (She had such an influence on me that I dedicated my most recent book ‘Jesus and the Gospel women’ to her memory.) After that my Granddad, a rather grumpy old soul, came to live with us, and I witnessed at first hand his inconsolable grief at losing the love of his life, and being uprooted from his home of many years because it had been decided that he ‘couldn’t cope’ with it. He spoke so wistfully of childhood friends, and when he heard me practising the piano, he would ask me to play hymn tunes that had the power to transport him back to his school assemblies at the end of the Victorian age. Yet he was also troubled by bad memories of the great depression when he feared his family would starve or end up in the workhouse. Today we know much more about bereavement and depression in later life; the positive value of reminiscence and music to reach out to those who find this present life difficult; and the re-emergence of trauma from earlier years in the minds of people who can no longer run away from bad memories by filling their time with the distractions of work and family. As a teenager in the 1970s I simply observed these things, and like Mary, ‘pondered them in my heart.’

As I came to an adult faith in Christ at the age of 13, my experience was (and continues to be) that Christ turned me out from myself and gave me a great longing to make things better in the world. I was on the look-out for worthy projects. A rather attractive and exotic young man from a local social justice charity visited our school and asked for volunteers to help with some children’s projects he was running. There was also an opportunity to work with older people, but they sounded grim, and the attractive young man wasn’t directly involved in that part of the charity’s activities. Not surprisingly, none of my school mates volunteered to work with the oldies. At the time I was going through a ‘you-must-suffer- in-order-to-be-spiritual’ phase, so I decided to eschew children’s work with the young man, and instead volunteered to visit a local authority residential home for the elderly as a kind of exercise in self-punishment. But of course God has a great sense of humour (something I was just discovering), and I found to my surprise that I gradually moved from dreading those encounters with ladies who were forgetful and hard of hearing, sitting in chairs around the edge of day room with the TV blaring so that you had to scream to make yourself heard, to loving their company, joining in with their weird and outmoded humour, wondering what it must be like to be in their shoes and, perhaps most of all, admiring their courage and stoicism. I still have some of the gifts they made for me in their occupational therapy sessions, I vividly remember their faces, but the face of that attractive and exotic young man who first pointed me in their direction is long forgotten.

Off I went to University to study psychology at Oxford, and then on to clinical training in London, and my first placement was in the speciality that mental health professionals now refer to as ‘older adults’. I was despatched to treat an old lady who had developed a severe form of agoraphobia – a fear of leaving her home. When I went to visit her I discovered that she was blind and lived in a crime-ridden road in Brixton. She’d have been mad to venture outside alone. You didn’t need to be a genius to see that her problem was not mental but social. She was profoundly lonely, and she inhabited an alienated and alienating urban environment. I got angry with my psychology professors and I started thinking hard about how society treats its older people.

I qualified as a clinical psychologist, got married, had babies, and found myself as the curate’s wife in a long interregnum in a parish in Nottingham. Here was the first time I started to think seriously about the spiritual needs of older people. We had such a lovely group who came to a midweek service of Holy Communion. I used to make coffee for them afterwards, with our baby son in tow, and was struck by the delight these old people took in him. It was as if he offered them hope, a promise that life would continue and could improve, even as they prepared to leave this world. Here I thought of Simeon who took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, ‘Lord, now lettest they servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen Thy salvation’. Letting people depart in peace, by giving them a hopeful vision for the future seems to me now to be one of the key services the younger members of church and society can give their elders. I talk about this to young parents when I prepare them for the baptism of their children. I ask them to reflect on the reaction of older members of their family to the arrival of the baby, we talk about the gift of hope, and I have found that it’s something they recognise and connect with very strongly, even if their church background is minimal.

Those older members of our congregation in Nottingham didn’t just receive from us. The men in particular were wonderful mentors to my husband, providing wise spiritual counsel during the difficulty of an extended interregnum. Twenty-five years later I experienced exactly the same blessing in my own difficult curacy. I would not have got through it without the support and example of retired clergy, Mothers Union members, and other wonderful older lay people.

But that is to rush ahead. After we moved to Oxford and our children started school, I returned to clinical practice, this time with people who suffered from dementia and other brain disorders. I became very experienced in working with people with profound memory loss, and I became increasingly aware of the importance of memory in sustaining a sense of identity, worth, and relationship with God. I remain passionate about the need for church communities to re-member by Word, Sacrament, and love, those who have lost their own memories. I went on to study for a PhD, much of which was concerned with the acute fear of falling that is endured by frail people, old and young. Towards the end of her life, my mother developed this sort of fear. At least I could understand it, and perhaps this helped, but I was also sad to see that all my knowledge could not make her fear disappear – we had to learn to live with it, and to accept the relentlessly shrinking extent of her physical world. Being invited into such little worlds is a privilege for those of us who come alongside the housebound and those in hospital and residential care, to listen, pray, or just be. We need to tread carefully and with respect as we enter these tiny yet special domains.

In recent years, alongside my curacy, I have been teaching university courses on human development across the life span, and have discovered a whole literature on the riches of old age – the wisdom that can grow from engaging with suffering and getting through it; from having seen most things (like the author of Ecclesiastes); and from not having anything left to prove. I’ve come to understand the tasks of later life – tying up loose ends; making peace with inner demons and alienated friends and family; holding defining memories for a community; and making sure we pass on what we have learnt to the next generation before it’s too late. This is something the church has not yet fully grasped nor appreciated in our postmodern age, dominated as it is by youth culture with little sense of history. So, I approach my new role, taken on from my excellent predecessor Janet Parker, somewhat daunted. But I am also excited at the prospect of learning more, and above all, am humbled at God’s call to contribute what I can to this area of ministry among his people.

Joanna Collicutt (2010)