‘Over the Hill or Embracing the View?’ Perspectives on Later Life – Pippa Bonner

Pippa Bonner shares insights from her encounters as a Pastoral Worker with older people.

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

I am an older person (a younger older person, rather than an older, older person,) and a Catholic who retired a few years ago only to hear about a part time job in pastoral care. Now I work offering pastoral care to older women in a Nursing and Care Home. I am a widow with children and grandchildren. I come from a social work background, then moving to hospice work where I coordinated a Bereavement Service. At the same time I worked for a part time Masters Degree in Theology.

You might also like to know that I can knot balloons quickly, have a reasonable serve at tennis, and have found my singing voice improves with age. I dislike housework and gardening but love reading stories to my younger grandchildren.

There is nothing special in any of this because all older people gain experience in all sorts of ways, but I am ‘embracing the view’ of later life. However I have some hearing loss, cataracts and am being investigated for wobbly legs. All of these symptoms make me wonder, am I moving towards being ‘over the hill’ ?

What is special are some of the encounters I have had with older people, (older than me), which illustrate their faith, their wisdom, grace, courage and humour despite their losses, pain, vulnerability and, in some cases, dementia.

‘Models of Ageing’ and Unexpected Encounters

I have encountered great models of ageing as people patiently adjust to a new pain or a decrease in mobility. However, next day they may feel frustrated or anxious.

Older peoples’ situations can vary from day to day. I have learnt about encountering people in the moment and trying to respond in that moment. Some people like structure, planning and appointments, which I honour too, but others no longer do. They want to talk NOW.

I find I often can respond in the moment.
Tomorrow, later in the day, the moment may have passed.

In my parish community I am encouraged and comforted by some of the parishioners in their 90s who come to Mass and other events.  At least three who live alone near the church, walk to Mass using walking frames or sticks. Priests and people come and go but these three represent for me the faith, love, humour, highs and lows, and gritty persistence in the life of the Parish. I know they have bad days too, but they are an inspiration. We all know people like these: strong models of living life, however tough it is (who would be very embarrassed to be described like this!)

I also want to give a few examples that were unexpected gifts for me, of older, older people who may be viewed by some as being over the hill. But are they?

For example, one woman with dementia often has disturbing thoughts some of which are delusional and paranoid. It is distressing for her and those around her.

However, a while ago she said to me, in a clear moment, that when she gets wound up sometimes poetry helps her to unwind. So, I and others read poetry with her for short periods. Sometimes she reads familiar poetry she learned at school.

She also started to fear going out. On a lovely sunny spring afternoon recently, I took her out in a wheelchair. She pointed out to me the bird song and we enjoyed the flowers. We sang songs. One of them was “Row, row, row your boat “and I realised that the walking stick she insisted on clutching in the wheelchair had become the oar of our boat as we travelled past daffodils and even a butterfly in the March sunshine. She soon went back to feeling distressed but she had had some respite from her disturbing thoughts and we saw her transient enjoyment.

Another woman with dementia had lived a contemplative religious life for many years. At the end of her life she was mostly silent but had a wonderful smile. She was an example of one aspiration of older age: “being rather than doing”. Despite her dementia I and many others were aware of her deep spirituality.

One of her favourite expressions before she lost most of her speech (though she would still sing) was “Oh, how lovely!” Sometimes, I would sit with her in silence, holding her hand. I felt so much strength coming from her. It restored me and seemed to comfort her as she smiled.

Similarly, another resident who had advanced dementia had been a very gifted teacher, writer and Spiritual Director. Part of my role in the Care Home is to facilitate a monthly Discussion Group. We were going to be discussing Pope Francis’ document, Laudato Si which is about the world and creation. I had gone with her around the garden.

Suddenly she was praising the flowers and trees around her in a deep reflective, beautiful way. As soon as our walk was over, I wrote down what she had said and added it to the handout we were using. She came to the discussion and saw the piece she had said in the garden.

She joyfully read it aloud then and later in the session she read it again! Everyone was pleased to see a strong glimpse of the previous person they had known. Her joy and the pleasure of the other residents seeing her joy and a reminder of her work was a gift to all of us. 

Embracing the View – with it’s beauty, light and dark patches

It goes without saying that I have also encountered deep pain and distress in my pastoral work. Older people may feel they are encountering numerous losses in their life: bereavement and other losses of health, independence and agency. For some older, older people their lives are punctuated by so many adjustments to new losses (not necessarily deaths), pain and changes in their daily lives that the process of finding some kind of equilibrium can be a recurring challenge.

People usually find that resilience means
not blocking out the emotional pain, but living with it,
and in time, finding altered ways of living.

All of us can listen, support and accompany people at particular times. Compassion is literally about staying “with the passion”, the passing or pain, of the moment.

How can we continue to find hope, faith and perseverance? How can we embrace the view? Those of us who are older may have less physical strength but have life experience to know when we are managing, need some support or where we can continue to support others around us.

Ageing, whether as a younger older person or an older, older person, seems to mean adjusting to new ways of managing how we feel, how we cope and experience new hurdles and happy times, often all at once. We embrace the view with its beauty, light and its dark patches.

The Mass is an important part of many Catholics’ lives, particularly older Catholics. For many people with dementia, Mass remains important in some way. Often the words, rhythms, actions and hymns are recalled and people may join in for a time. One woman sometimes bursts into tears when the words of Jesus’ death are mentioned, but she can also become loudly ecstatic at the consecration. These are unfiltered, undiluted responses which teach us all to value what is happening. We should be grief stricken or ecstatic at the same moments, but repetition and an adult sense of decorum can get in the way.

Growing Old Grace-fully became aware during the Covid lockdown how some older people preferred watching Mass or other church services online. People could choose a priest or church or time that suited them, and could participate from a comfortable, familiar armchair rather than journey to church. Some could hear the homily better. Growing Old Grace-fully hope that some streamed Masses will continue.

So, are we or others embracing the view or over the hill? I think we can only answer for ourselves.

I have often noticed that people who society might deem
as being “over the hill”, appear to me as having moments
of great understanding, wisdom, joy and vision.

Pippa finished her talk by reciting this poem:

Taking Communion to Jennifer by Fr Michael McCarthy
From his collection of poems ‘The Bright Room’ published in 2018.  

I find her in good form. 
We chat awhile, then move on to pray. 
As we make our way through the Our Father 
I sense a presence in the space behind me. 
Concentrating on the moment, I continue: 
Lord I am not worthy that you should enter 
Under my roof…As she receives the host 
A warm breath caresses the back of my neck. 
Turning, I see an elderly resident in slippers 
Her face stricken. A single sob escapes from her. 
Placing a hand on her forehead I say the blessing. 
Her full-on smile radiates down the length of my arm
Something is unlocked in us.

Pippa Bonner, April 2022

Loss and Resilience in Older Age

How can we understand our reactions and responses to the current time?

This coronavirus pandemic is a strange, roller coaster time of ups and downs in our daily lives. We are very likely worried about others and ourselves, on alert, and at the same time want distraction and any good news stories. Maybe our routines and immediate plans are currently up in the air……

Yet we live in the same place with the same view out of the window and with the same community around us. How much of our daily lives have changed and for how long? This coronavirus pandemic will pass. We live in a country with a National Health Service that is free, staffed with skilled hard-working doctors, nurses, carers and other valued, dedicated staff. Staff and supplies are under pressure but we are perhaps relieved we live in the UK.  We will also be concerned about our sisters and brothers worldwide. We are told news every day. This is a mixture (currently in March) of worsening statistics, news stories of dedicated work by medical and local authorities, communities singing and exercising from balconies and lots of other creative ways to stay connected and fit, despite this new term “social distancing.” Some of us are rationing our intake of worrying news. We may also be hearing heart-warming stories and seeing cartoons that make us smile.

Life’s Ups and Downs

Many of us are feeling all kinds of emotions. Some remember previous national and personal hard times. We know from life experience that we have mostly weathered and come through loss of many kinds: family, health, money and work difficulties, ruptured relationships, uncertainties and unexpected challenges. We have also experienced many positive aspects in our lives, and more to come!

And… we have got through to where we are now. Some have had a lifetime of raising families, years of work, acquiring skills and knowledge, having periods of happiness and fulfilment and may on the whole be mostly satisfied about the small and large contributions we have made, and in some ways continue to make to others.

However, at present we may find our mood and outlook changes during the day so that we are experiencing ups and downs. I have just spoken to my 90 year old mother a hundred miles away. She spent the morning reading (in her view) a depressing newspaper article about future country finances and then sat in the sunshine in her garden enjoying the flowers. This morning I felt anxious listening to the news, but then listened to The Archers and went out for my daily walk and saw the daffodils, looking colourful and beautiful whatever is going on around them despite the earlier floods. They flower every year whatever is happening!

We may be worried about our families and friends. Are they well? Will they stay well? Will we manage to get our food and other requirements? Will those unable to work have enough money to manage, jobs to go back to and have time and space for their children to do some schoolwork, have some fun and ways of releasing their energy? Will teenagers and others facing external exams be supported through the next few months and through the next academic and life changes in their lives?

And how do we find peace and distraction when we need that? We have the wisdom and experience of older age to know how we cope in difficult times. Perhaps we pray more and find our religious belief helpful and then we can cry out in our own way: why is this happening to me and to them? Sometimes we doubt our religious faith. Do we have the resilience to cope with this uncertainty? How long will this last? Will we stay well?

I worked for many years supporting people through bereavement and loss, and to a limited extent I still do! You may wonder why I am mentioning loss. We may currently be fearing loss or bereavement or worry about change and having to live a different life for the moment. Our routines and networks are disrupted. We may be grieving for the freedom to go out and meet others or have visitors calling round. We wonder about people’s jobs, and anxieties about paying bills, rents and mortgages, Perhaps we have “lost” our peace of mind?

 A Loss, Change and Bereavement Model

One of the most useful, enduring bereavement and loss models, in my view, is from Stroebe and Schut that focuses on how we each individually may respond to loss, bereavement and change, including a changed perception of our current life and the world around us. You may be familiar with it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t. After many years of offering it to people I have learnt a number of points:

  1. You are the person who knows best how you think and feel and you are the expert in that, even if at times it doesn’t seem like that. Others can try to empathise with how you think and feel. 
  2. There are two main types of responses we may find we are using, as follows:

a) FEELINGS – You may respond to loss, change and bereavement by feeling sad, panic, angry, guilty, disorientated and experience a number of emotions. You may be very aware of feelings and trying to work through your emotions of loss.

b) MANAGING & PLANNING – You may be someone who manages loss, bereavement and the perception of a changing world by trying to plan and manage it, allowing yourself to plan for the future, be distracted and sometimes even deny to yourself it is happening.

3.  Neither of these ways are either right or wrong – the way of feeling the emotions, or the way of planning a way through – they are both alright and are just how they are.

4. We are all different but you may encounter some difficulty if you get stuck  either with only feeling the feelings or only trying to cope and plan too much.

5. We usually learn to oscillate, move between, expressing emotion and working towards a future. So, a mixture of both a) feeling the feeling and b) managing the situation towards the future is needed, so this is not an “either/or” but a “both and” way of dealing with our lives. That is why it can seem like a roller coaster experience: up and down.

We all have our existing losses and now with Coronavirus we are dealing with the anxiety of the immediate future. This can compound the feeling of loss for us depending on the losses we are already experiencing.

Resilience

An important point to offer is that those working with people who are experiencing the challenges and positives of everyday lives often use the word resilience. Here resilience isn’t defined as being brave and positive all the time. What is meant here, in my view, is that a resilient person is one that can hold the difficult and positive stuff together and continue in their lives.

We all have ups and downs but in older age we have usually realised that we have come through a lot of life and can hold what we have experienced from the good times and the challenging experiences at the same time. So we are usually quite resilient even when it doesn’t feel like it!

Let us keep supporting each other through this in whatever way we can. When this corona virus time comes to an end we can look back together and see how we came through!

Pippa Bonner March 2020