‘Over the Hill or Embracing the View?’ Perspectives on Later Life – Keith Albans

Rev Dr Keith Albans explores some ‘items for our AGE-enda to help us work at growing old’

Adapted from a talk given by Keith at our event on 26th April 2022 at Wheeler Hall, Leeds.

Although the mountaineer and the downhill skier share a similar setting for their activities, and have a common objective of reaching the bottom of the mountain safely and in one piece, the shape of those challenges is entirely different. For the climber, reaching the summit’s the primary goal – marked with photographs and smiles, with the bonus of planting a flag or adding a stone to a cairn. On the other hand, the skier’s ascent is merely a means to an end – usually assisted by a cable car or ski-lift – with the main purpose being to get down again as quickly as possible.

Many seem to live with a similar image of the human lifespan, with the first part being concerned with gaining skills, strength and potential, and the second part – literally ‘over the hill’- being spoken of in terms of multiple losses, most notably loss of strength and potential.

Kenneth Howse expressed it like this: “We think of human powers and capabilities as following a parabolic trajectory through the life course: eventually they stop climbing upwards and take a downward turn.” However, as he continues, “If there is a dimension of life which stands apart from this pattern of change, it is the spiritual dimension,” and Richard Rohr’s choice of book title was Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, the imagery of being over the hill needs closer examination.

For an elite athlete, the progression through their career is likely to have this shape, and for them retirement will be brought on by an inability to perform in the way they once did. Some choose to go out at the top, while others linger into the twilight.

I recall Steve Davis, the former snooker world champion, said he relished the challenge of pitting his skills and experience against the younger opponents making their way in the sport.

He didn’t expect always to win, or even to perform in the way he once had, but instead to discover a new sense of purpose and a new measure of performance.

Later life requires this kind of approach if it’s not simply to be seen as a falling away from what once was.

In 1933 the psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote,

“One cannot live the afternoon of life
according to the program of life’s morning;
for what was great in the morning
will be of little importance in the evening,
and what in the morning was true
will at evening have become a lie.”

Carl Jung

More recently Marie de Hennezel put it like this, “We still have to construct a more positive image of this time of life, confront our fears in order to overcome them, and work out a real policy for preventing unhappy old age. Lastly, it is up to us to combat the denial of old age and death, by working at growing old.”

So if we’re to make the best of the view as we travel ‘over the hill’ what might we put on our spiritual AGEnda that will help us work at growing old?

1. Open-ness – being real

‘Combat the denial of old age and death’ – most advertising to elders majors on denial – by covering up the effects of ageing, or promoting a sense of escapism!

But to best enjoy the view, being real about the stage of life we are at seems fundamental. Recognising that some hopes can no longer be realised – (for instance, I will never open the batting for England !) – does not mean new dreams cannot be envisaged, worked at and experienced…

In addition, encouraging open conversations with those who are accompanying us on our later life journeys is something we can do… It can be hard for family members to come on board – but they can take their lead from us… this can be true especially around end-of-life issues and ‘the will’!

2. Unfinished Business

‘Regrets, I had a few… but then again too few to mention’ – but you just did!

None of us are likely to have got to the period called ‘later life’ without having incurred hurts and sorrows or, equally, without having trodden on a few toes here and there. Of course not everything can be ‘undone’ – but some hurts can be healed – and ‘before it’s too late’ is a helpful watchword.

Unfinished business also includes the things as yet undone… This is the extension of ‘new dreams’ and – to extend the analogy – the task of ‘making new memories’, which is so important. The ‘over the hill journey’ is not just about remembering times past – the journey itself becomes the stuff of memories…For example, at a party for Charlotte’s 110th birthday, she commented that she had not had a passport until she was 100!

3. Encouraging Reflection & Depth

I mentioned Richard Rohr earlier. In his book Falling Upwards he writes this: “while the task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life, the task of the second half of life is to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.”

It’s another way of saying what Kierkegaard said: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”


He also said: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”  

Part of experiencing the ‘over the hill’ journey, if it is to be as full an experience as possible, has to include some reflection on what has gone before – that will arise from sorting our unfinished business anyway – but arriving at a sober understanding of what has been – and something of what it has been about – is important. As a Minister in the Methodist Church, I reflect on what it has been about and ask Whither the Church? Whither the Kingdom?
This is reflected somewhat in this quote: “We all dimly feel that our transient historical identity is the only chance in all eternity to be alive as a somebody in a here and a now. We, therefore, dread the possibility, of which we are most aware when deeply young or very old, that at the end we may find that we have lived the wrong life or not really lived at all.” Erik Erikson

4. Landmarks – celebrations/marking them

Some may say ‘Any excuse for a party!’ Marking transitions is important and so is noting the milestones, such as reaching State Retirement age, or having lived 24000 days (as I did a few months ago) or 3 billion seconds (my Mum has recently achieved this). The journey uphill is marked by staging camps and so too is the journey down again, so we should take the time to stop and look around.

5. Intergenerational Community

When I retired I moved to live next door to my grandchildren! Brilliant move! But more than that – having awareness of the generation above and those below is another part of making sense of the ‘over the hill journey’. Being on touch with elders while you can… being available to those below too… It makes the journey a community and a communal event – “it’s not just about me!”

6. Maintaining Connection

In retiring and moving house, I was well aware of the connections that I cut. As a minister some of those were inevitable and right, and in the first few months there were many things which I rightly avoided as I tried to adjust to a new place and a new way of being me.

But maintaining connections in a changing world, a changing church, and a changed location are vital – especially to ward off loneliness, bitterness and a “it wasn’t like this in my day” attitude.

That’s my AGEnda – I am sure there are other things we could add – but the point outlined by Marie de Hennezel is the key – working at growing old, crafting what you can, repairing what you can, making sense of what you can.

I have never found the source of this final quotation – or indeed who Michael Guilford, to whom it is attributed, is! But I’m sure he is/was right.

The only people who are old are those who think
they have learnt all they need to know
and have given up discovering.
For the rest of us, each day reminds us of our ignorance
and needles us towards discovering more,
about ourselves and about life and death.”

Keep being needled – and make the most of the journey!

Rev Dr Keith Albans, April 2022.

‘Over the Hill or Embracing the View?’ A series of events on Perspectives on Later Life

Later Life – what is your perspective?

Is it a decline or an ascent, a blessing or a burden, or a mixture of both? How do we face and embrace both the challenges and the joys in the context of our ongoing spiritual journey? How do we support those around us to do the same?

We would love to see you
at any or all of our partnership events on Later Life.
Click on the links below to book your place:

1. ‘Over the Hill or Embracing the View? Perspectives on Later Life’.


Tuesday 26th April 12 noon at Wheeler Hall, Leeds (next to St Anne’s Cathedral).
Enjoy a lovely lunch followed by a panel of speakers and time for questions and discussion. (In partnership with Leeds Church Institute).


2.Jubilee Tea Party and Celebrating Later Life! (The Briery, Ilkley)


Sunday 12th June 3.00pm at The Briery Retreat Centre, Ilkley
The Briery kitchen will cook up a lovely spread for a tea party celebrating our Queen, and we will reflect on the joys and opportunities of later life for us all. There is a suggested offering of £10 per head. Please ring 01943 607287 to book and pay. (In partnership with The Briery Retreat Centre).


3. Jubilee Tea Party and Celebrating Later Life! (Wheeler Hall)’


Thursday 16th June 2.30pm at Wheeler Hall, Leeds.
Join us for a tea party celebrating our Queen and reflecting on the joys and opportunities of later life for us all. A Donations Box will be available on the day. (In partnership with Leeds Church Institute).

4. Losses and Later Lifehow do we face changes in our later years.


Tuesday 12th July 2.30pm Online (Tbc)
A discussion event reflecting on how we face and make sense of changes and diminishment in our later years.
(In partnership with Leeds Church Institute).


‘A Moment of Revelation’ by a Diocesan priest

The other day I was advised that I needed a routine chest x-ray (not COVID-19 related). The nearest available hospital was in the centre of Leeds.  Driving myself into the business of the city from the outskirts was a bit of a novelty.

Until the March lockdown, I had enjoyed an active priestly life which involved ministry to an enclosed community of religious sisters, prison chaplaincy and some committee work but not parish involvement.  I live, therefore, in an independent flat. I am 74 years old and preparing for retirement in August. I am the owner of 2 arterial stents, 3 by-pass arteries and more recently a cardiac pacemaker.

As a vulnerable older person I was instructed to self-isolate in my home. It has made obvious sense for me to keep the rules. Other than daily exercise and the odd minor infraction, I have stayed at home, isolated from the general commerce of daily life. Even my shopping has been done by two very kind friends.

Thus a trip into Leeds was a novelty which at first felt quite daunting. However I soon got into the swing of it. Everything went well and it was the most straightforward outpatient appointment, I think I have ever had. It felt good to become again part of daily life with nurses, doctors and patients all moving about their business as if they were nothing too unusual happening in the world.

As I drove back I tuned in to radio 5L, as I have so often done in times past. And then suddenly, as if the clock had been turned back, I experienced a strange and powerful feeling of being young and energetic again. It quite startled me to realise that three months of isolation and constant news bulletins of sickness and death had imperceptibly given me a sense of having aged.

That revelatory experience has caused me to ponder and wonder what might be the connection between isolation and a sense of ageing.

One of the things I have struggled with during enforced separation from the world, is a sense of purpose. What is the meaning of life if one is all locked up and nowhere to go! What should I do with the day. Like everyone, in the beginning I busied myself with emptying an overflowing in-tray and answering overdue correspondence. But gradually when most of those loose ends were dealt with the question surfaced  – “what is it all about Alfie?” this life locked in doors.

Then the words of Jesus to St. Peter after the resurrection began to resonate.     “But when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will   put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go. “

Though I am blessed with my faculties, both physical and mental, I seem somehow, during isolation, to have lost some independence. Now I must wait for the Government to tell me what is safe and what is not safe, what I can and what I mustn’t do. The belt feels to have been tied around me.

Seeing, each morning, the younger residents of the complex of flats where I live, setting off to gainful employment, seeing the key workers organising things in the supermarket car park opposite and watching the delivery men and the refuse collectors keeping the wheels of life turning, made me feel as though I do not quite belong to the world.  It has created a sense of separation with a resulting sense of unimportance!

It would appear that these three personal experiences of self-isolation have unwittingly left me feeling older.  It makes me wonder will I retire well, – a very pertinent question since my retirement may very well proceed my liberation from lockdown.

What I am very conscious of is that my admiration for the many housebound people older or younger, who manage to stay young at heart, has grown. It is to them I must turn for wisdom and guidance so that lockdown doesn’t rob me, prematurely of a youthful outlook.