We have come to think of an ageing population as a burden

Older people are all too aware that their well-being increasingly falls  into other people's hands and they can feel very unsafe
Older people are all too aware that their well-being increasingly falls into other people's hands and they can feel very unsafe

In recent weeks, the Assisted Dying Bill has attracted much media attention and debate.

One group of people who were never intended to be the subject of that debate nevertheless are (in my experience) beginning to feel very vulnerable: older people.

The Right Reverend John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher, Church of Ireland

The Right Reverend John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher, Church of Ireland

The idea that life can be ended given certain extreme circumstances is something that older, frail people get concerned about.

They hear the arguments that assisted dying is intended in exceptional cases but have a nagging worry which often comes when their confidence has already been shaken through the experience of illness, a bad fall or the decline of mental powers.

Older people are all too aware that their well-being slips more and more into other people’s hands and they can feel very unsafe. As a society, we have become dangerously used to speaking and thinking of an ageing population as a burden.

However, we need to remember that we have probably never depended more on older people. Huge numbers of older people volunteer and do what they can, unpaid, to support their own families and society in general.

It is only after acknowledging these facts that we can begin to think about the questions which arise about increased dependency due to old age. Firstly, we must ask how our public services and private energies can best preserve dignity and capacity among those who may be increasingly frail.

We must recognise that assuming that the character of older people is often passive fosters attitudes of contempt and exasperation, and ultimately creates a climate in which abuse can occur.

And abuse is by no means confined to more extreme neglect or violence. It is the cumulative effect of the impatience, derision or patronising behaviour which can be seen every day in every place.

The same applies where we are talking about more than merely physical incapacity.

A prayer written by the daughter of a dementia sufferer relates this experience:

“Please grant my visitors tolerance for my confusion, forgiveness for my irrationality, and the strength to walk with me in the mist of memory my world has become. Please help them to take my hand and stay a while even though I may seem unaware of their presence.

“Help them to know how their strength and loving care will drift slowly into the days to come just when I need it most. Keep their hearts free from sorrow for me for when my sorrow comes to me it lasts only a moment then is gone.

“And finally Lord let them know how very much their visits mean to me and how through the relentless mystery of this disease, I can still feel their love.”

Is that not a vocation worth having and a prayer worth praying?

All of this also underlines the importance of relationships between the generations.

As family structures become looser and more scattered, it is vital to have regular opportunities for younger people (especially children) and older people to interact.

The contribution of churches is particularly significant here as we should often simply be the most obvious and effective place for old and young to meet and where older people can volunteer.

We have almost slipped into thinking that life is only worth living between the ages of 18 and 65. But the years when we are not as economically efficient are a time when we have an opportunity to take in and contribute to the world in a different way.

Young people also age and it is highly desirable that they have older people on whom they can look as models in that process.

• Rt Revd John McDowell is the Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher