The growing interest among the Western media in the ever-burgeoning numbers of older people has, by and large, ignored one crucial feature of the new ageing phenomenon, namely that death has increasingly become a feature of older age. In the United Kingdom during 1974, the 85+ age group made up 15.8% of all deaths, whereas by 2013 that figure had grown to 38.2%. For males only, during the same period, the figure more than trebled, from 9.3% to 28.7% (ONS, 2014). The factors behind this change are well understood, with better healthcare and the changing nature of employment being to the forefront. However, the consequences of the change, in terms of the existential experience of the older people themselves, have attracted far less attention. For those approaching the final stages of their life, even if that life has been long and fulfilled, the questions of what it has all been about and whether you will be remembered once you have gone operate at the heart of what we call their spiritual needs. Madeleine L'Engle's assertion that, ‘The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been’, may be of comfort in middle age but it is at odds with the experience of many of those approaching death when loss looms (Anderson and Dunlap 1985). Likewise, Edward Abbey's assertion (Lamberton 2005) that, ‘If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture – that is immortality enough for me’, sounds more plausible when the concerns of this life dominate than when we contemplate the imminence of the life beyond.
Many older people spend their final weeks and months living either alone or surrounded by their close family. For them, the issue of addressing their existential questions and their spiritual needs belongs to those in their immediate circle, which may or may not include a faith community. But for those older people who live in a residential aged care facility, these issues can and should be part of the on-going care that they receive. The image of the Final Lap comes from the Olympic Marathon where, having spent most of the race running around the streets of the host city, the runners enter the stadium for the final half kilometre.
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