Jean Améry (Hanns Chaim Mayer) was an Austrian-born essayist, whose reflections on aging outline the cost that age brings to the human body, mind, and spirit. He has suggested the elderly come to rest, and are forced, by the depredations of ageing, to make do without—for example, unable to exercise their agency as they once did. Moreover, he has suggested, their inertia prevents the old from apprehending and accepting new developments and ideas. That is to say, the old find themselves in a world they no longer understand and without the capacities to engage with it. Despair enters as an unwanted companion.
But such despair corresponds to the darker side of ageing, which is often occluded by research that celebrates emancipatory ideals and offers strategies for promoting ‘successful aging’. Such ideals and strategies often focus on narratives of agency, i.e., urgent action and market commodities that claim to reverse or delay the onset of aging. Other such research illuminates extrinsic disadvantages that compound age-related distresses, giving attention to income inequalities, housing inadequacies, and service limitations that can be remediated by providers or provisions. Yet little attention is given to the type of subjective affairs and experiences, i.e., the existential gravity, of ageing and the experiences of pain, suffering, and despair.
With 10 million persons over the age of sixty-five in the UK at present, an absolute statistic expected to double by 2050, it seems appropriate to think about the moral reality of aging with a focus upon not only the existential gravity but also the response, which might nurture new ways of thinking about health care and the provision of hope for an aging population. Such an endeavour becomes increasingly significant when one considers similar statistics: US statistics estimate their elderly populations will double by 2060, accounting for 24% of the population. Stats Canada indicates a similar relative statistic of 23% of the Canadian population will be over sixty-five by 2030. Likewise, Europe (including the UK) projects a 51% old-age dependency ratio by 2070.
The 11th Annual McDonald Centre Conference will seek to gather theologians and philosophers for conversation with medical professionals and health care strategists such that the gravity of old age, including subject experiences of suffering and despair, can be foregrounded. Although aging, suffering, and despair offer the thematic contours for the conference, further thinking about essential virtues for overcoming despair and the meaning or practices of hope will also be examined such that health and care might be resourced, and public policies, educative experiences, and professional practices might be re-examined.