The drama of aging

This November the BBC reported a dramatic study, published by The Lancet, which told us that falls in the fertility rate of nearly half of all countries have resulted in insufficient births per fertile woman to maintain their population. The information was described as a “huge surprise”. Not to Catholic Herald readers of course since this column described the situation, its gravity and the likely consequences back in February 2015. And perhaps the headline over-egged the drama because in fact the fertility rates of well to do countries are very low; while the rates of poor to do countries are very high.

The fertility of the poorer countries is easy to understand. The lack of education, the unavailability of contraception, child mortality and the dependence on other family members inevitably result in high fertility rates. The prosperous countries have the opposite reasons for reducing family size. The UK, for instance has a fertility rate of 1.91 – similar to the US, and higher than many European countries. The rate required to maintain the population is about 2.1.

Our first reaction might be to congratulate ourselves on our contribution to reducing the population. But, before we do so, we might consider the situation of Japan. It is seen as a model of what can happen to a modern country which reduces its population. After the War, when Japan was, in effect, under the control of the US, artificial contraception was introduced – and widely taken up. Stanislas de Lestapis, the Jesuit demographer, writing at that time about the long term consequences of reducing the birth rate, was uncannily accurate in his description of the future. So much so, that the circumstances of modern Japan are now taken as a model for our own potential futures.

The first problem is simply mathematical. If a society drops its birth rate significantly the first effect is the growing discrepancy between generations. The younger, working, generation becomes relatively smaller than the retiring generations. The Congo, for instance, has a fertility rate of about 7. Imagine the effect of that rate dropping to 2. Even allowing for substantial improvement in infant mortality, the disproportion is going to cause big problems, and will continue to do so for several generations. Lestapis focussed on this discrepancy of generations, but he was not in a position to chart future increases in longevity.

Life expectancy in Japan is already four years ahead of the UK, and in the next forty years Japanese women can expect to live, on average, into their 90s. Over a quarter of its population is older than 64 years and appears to be creating a new level of society with its own social, economic, and medical needs. One characteristic is impaired cognitive function through forms of dementia. In Japan about five million people have some form of this disorder, and this is expected to rise to seven million by 2025. By that time the cost of care, medical and other services, will be around $160 billion. Interestingly The Lancet, in a major study of increasing longevity, attributes the poor performance of the USA in this regard at least partly to “to high and inequitable mortality from chronic diseases and violence, and insufficient and inequitable health care.”

This alarming situation is not just a matter of concern for the Japanese, it will eventually occur in many countries including our own. Even more dramatically it may one day directly affect anyone reading this column. I can only imagine what it would feel like to have dementia. There are of course many levels and types of mental disorder but I suppose that a gradual loss of competence must be increasingly distressing. It may well be shaming too since dementia carries a social stigma. It will be easier to write us off than to offer the sympathetic care and company which we really need. As one commentator said, “Having even advanced dementia doesn’t mean people know nothing, that they don’t have feelings. All they have is deep insecurity about their memories.”

Ironically we are fortunate in just one respect: the Japanese are facing this enormous problem already. They are establishing models for the care of the aged, which we in turn will be able to adapt and use. Those among us who have relations or friends with mental disorders or other incapacities will be well aware of the coming problems. Already some will have shortened their working hours or even abandoned paid work to care for relatives. The rest of us must understand the need for a systematic approach to care for this new level of society. It will be expensive but unavoidable.

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to The drama of aging

  1. pnyikos says:

    The USA is also below replacement level, but we have one advantage over Japan, which makes it very hard for foreigners to immigrate. Immigration keeps the USA both growing and comparatively young, although there are problems ahead because the slowness of growth and the unusual size of the generation of the baby boomers, already retiring in droves.

    Having been born early in 1946, I am one of the first of the baby boomers, but my health and love of teaching and research are causing me to postpone my retirement; I hope to hang in here for five more years before becoming another Professor Emeritus.

    And I hope Second Sight News will be here for years to come, and that I can participate more in the coming year than I have this past year.

  2. pnyikos says:

    Quentin, could you give us a reference to that article in The Lancet? The quote you provide ignores the proverbial elephant in the room: the marked increase in the percentage of overweight people. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, one almost never saw the kind of obesity that seems rampant here in the last two decades: fat without a proportionate amount of muscle to go with it. It is symptomatic of couch potatoes who do not get anywhere near the amount of physical activity that people of the olden days here had. Also the proliferation of “all you can eat” restaurants contributes to it.

    And it promises to get worse: with over two-thirds of adults here having “smartphones”, there is a lot of new busy-ness that does not leave enough time for meaningful physical activity.

  3. galerimo says:

    The shipping forecast would be more dramatic for the BBC than ageing. After all what could be more inevitable?

    I wonder what was the scope for this research with its “dramatic” outcomes?

    Perhaps, if they started from the fact that we, most of us, get old, we all get sick and we all die, their research might have taken a different direction. With more solutions. And some more caring.

    So the Catholic Congo might take a bit longer to catch up with the Japanese, (who sell more incontinence pads than babies nappies), but consumerism will eventually get them their minus 2.1 birth rate.

    The fact is, none of these data will make much impact on our death denying culture.

    (And is it really any surprise for the British that the House of Lords will no longer be able to support all their frail elderly by mid century?).

    There doesn’t seem to be any problem other than the mathematics here. God and nature, over and above its reproductive function, no longer serve any role in research as far a measured outcomes are concerned – and nowhere else is history more a thing of the past.

    You would think Noah and the bubonic plague etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. never happened!

    Is there any limit to the number of ways our survival is threatened?.

    An honest look at our current times clearly shows no role for seniors in a rapidly fragmenting consumerist society based, as it is on the myth of eternal growth.

    There is no diagnosis for the complexity of “frailty” in the chiefly medical response to what our society sees as the pathological condition of the senior years.

    More attention is needed to the unique life narrative of every senior individual. Didn’t villagers used to practice Cura Personalis of this kind, within their community?

    One thing that the Japanese deserve credit for and that is their shift to community based as opposed to institutional care. However, when it comes to learning, can you imagine a culture more contrasting with Britain than Japan?

    If Mother Teresa was disgusted at the obscenity of the neonatal intensive care units she saw in the U.S. with their alienating practices of separation how much more would she be revolted by the our treatment of the elderly through processes of medicalisation and isolation.

    Mental illness is just as worthy of attention in the young where it is also increasing. Maybe there is a real causal connection here that might be even more deserving of some “not for profit” research.

    One great consolation is the fact that Jesus didn’t get old.

    At least here we cannot fall back on some sentimental spirituality based on infantile modelling.

    The Holy Spirit alone with all Her creativity and power can bring Jesus alive in us as we navigate this final phase before we die.

    “The end is better than the beginning” (Ecc7: 8-9), “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day…” (2 Cor. 4: 16-18).

    Now that is dramatic stuff – that’s the drama of sageing.

    • pnyikos says:

      Galerimo: I agree with almost everything between your first four paragraphs and the last four. I’ve dealt at length with the first four,in my preceding comment.

      Now It appears that you have confirmed with the last four paragraphs what several people have suspected of you: that you are not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word; Plato and Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill were as “Christian” as you are.

      Don’t get me wrong: I am very happy to have generally respectful non-Christians like yourself on board here. I myself have doubts [John Henry Newman would have called them “difficulties” due to his peculiar usage of the word “doubt”] about the miracles of the Bible, even of the Resurrection, and about the very existence of God.

      On the other hand, I have an unquenchable hope that, despite my doubts, a humane kind of God exists who has made us for eternal life, and that the afterlife is handled at least as justly and mercifully as the one depicted in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce You seem to nurture no such hope — correct me if I am wrong.

      My only real beef with your closing paragraphs is your gratuitous assumption that Jesus would have been the victim of Alzheimer’s had he lived to a ripe old age. A great many influential, good, intelligent people have not shown any appreciable signs of it even as they approached a hundred years of age. I do believe Quentin is well on the way to that distinction, and I wish him well.

      [A pet peeve here: I eschew the word “dementia” because of its too-negative connotations. I prefer “Alzheimer’s,” which more readily admits of degrees: one can speak of “a mild case of Alzheimer’s,” etc.]

  4. pnyikos says:

    Galerimo: everyone ages, but what is the big news here is the new shape of what is called “the population pyramid”.

    For most of human history, and even now in “underdeveloped” countries, there was a roughly triangular graphic of how many people there were of a certain age. It was essentially a bar graph, broken down by decades, lying on its side. The upper bars, representing older and older people, got shorter and shorter, leading to a narrowing of the overall picture as one went up.

    This could represent two extremes, and the intermediate situations: a hefty rate of overall mortality and a population that neither grew nor shrank appreciably at one extreme; and a steadily growing population with comparatively little mortality until one got above the Biblical “threescore and ten” at the other. With the huge advances in medical care in the last two centuries, most countries (especially India) have had pyramids with especially wide bases and approaching the second extreme.

    In the USA, the pyramid has looked more like a pillar since the early days of ZPG and “the pill”. In Japan, we now have a pillar that is narrower at the bottom than at the top. If trends continue, Japan’s pyramid will be an inverted one. That is also happening to nominally Catholic Italy and a number of other European countries, especially Russia and the Baltic states that were part of the former Soviet Union.

    With the old pyramids, those able to do productive work supported the relatively few who could not: chldren responsible for the first layer, some adolescents in the second layer, and a few small layers at the top. Now some of the poorer countries with developing inverted pyramids, like Latvia, have such a small population of younger people that a new source of attrition threatens: mass emigration of young, able-bodied people to countries where they do not have to shoulder the burden for such a high proportion of non-workers. That could turn into a devastating feedback loop that could only be stopped by closing the border to emigration.

  5. Coconuts says:

    With the old pyramids, those able to do productive work supported the relatively few who could not: chldren responsible for the first layer, some adolescents in the second layer, and a few small layers at the top. Now some of the poorer countries with developing inverted pyramids, like Latvia, have such a small population of younger people that a new source of attrition threatens: mass emigration of young, able-bodied people to countries where they do not have to shoulder the burden for such a high proportion of non-workers. That could turn into a devastating feedback loop that could only be stopped by closing the border to emigration.

    I have read that in Romania this problem is going to be extreme; the Ceaucescu regime implemented some extreme natalist policies during the 1970s and 80s, the average number of children a woman had was between 6 and 8. Suddenly in the 1990s average children per woman dropped to about 1.5 and has stayed at this level since.

    I myself have doubts [John Henry Newman would have called them “difficulties” due to his peculiar usage of the word “doubt”] about the miracles of the Bible, even of the Resurrection…

    This is off topic (so sorry about this) but do you doubt that miracle-like-events are possible, or whether we are ever justified in believing in accounts of them? I say miracle-like-events because a genuine miracle I understand to be some act which breaks the laws of nature and which is brought about deliberately by God, an angel or a devil of some kind. I think there could be other events which equally appear to break or be exceptions to laws of nature, and so look like miracles, but which could be a consequence of the fact that the laws of nature are not as uniform or invariable as we assume them to be.

    This is just because the idea that all of reality is controlled by eternally unbreakable and unvarying laws seems, on the face of it, as implausible or strange as the idea that miraculous events are possible.

    • ignatius says:

      I wonder what would happen if gravity were to be variable in nature?

      • Coconuts says:

        Anomalous things would happen? For example, descriptions of elements of what the Second Coming of Christ will involve in the NT suggest that gravity is not eternally invariable.

    • galerimo says:

      Given that it may well take a miracle to reverse the declining birth rate or at least to solve the “big problems” that Quentin says may result from it, then your thoughts on “miracle like events” are, in my opinion, indeed on topic!

      The common understanding of miracles as God’s direct breaking of the laws of nature (you also include an angel or a devil of some kind) does deserve a closer look in this scenario.

      Such a definition does no credit either to God or to human intelligence.

      After all how good must God be as law giver or even respectful of God’s own work of law making if God has to resort to breaking such laws in order to do a wonderful thing?

      This breaking of the rules could mean that we simply have a deficit in our own knowledge to which such “miracle like events” gives a convenient answer. That which has no scientific explanation today could well have one tomorrow,

      So this understanding of miracles in terms of “causality”, that is, God directly causing some marvelous thing to happen by suspending the ordinary rules of nature will always be on shaky ground.

      Another way of looking at miracles – and this is a way to understand such events would be to view them in terms of “religious meaning”.

      I recognise an event to be a miracle because I see its significance in terms of God’s goodness or power according to my belief in God’s goodness or power.

      In this case a believer will probably be able to see more evidence of the power and goodness and mercy of God throughout all of creation without the risk of future scientific evidence ever demolishing their belief.

      For the scientist the event has yet to be satisfactorily explained, the believer on the other hand can invest the event with religious significance (God’s power/ healing/mercy which ever attribute is appropriate) according to their faith.

      I like the term “miracle like event” as it already points to this shift towards the subject in an effort to make more sense of it.

      Having said that, I think the case should be made more for God’s grace in anticipation of the likely problems brought about by the low birth rate in relation to ageing, more than for a miracle.

      • pnyikos says:

        The common understanding of miracles as God’s direct breaking of the laws of nature (you also include an angel or a devil of some kind) does deserve a closer look in this scenario.

        Such a definition does no credit either to God or to human intelligence.

        After all how good must God be as law giver or even respectful of God’s own work of law making if God has to resort to breaking such laws in order to do a wonderful thing?

        Galerimo, it would seem that you think Jesus’s Resurrection and Ascension either were made possible by some yet-unknown law of physics, or else could not have happened, had there been the sort of perfect entity to which you attach the label “God.”

        Do you discount all appearances of God in the Old Testament to Abraham, Moses, etc. on the grounds that God was manipulating his creation to make his presence felt in it? Don’t forget the claim that Jesus’s conception was due to the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit in “overshadowing” Mary.

        In my opinion, the Bible is completely incompatible with the extreme form of Deism that you are espousing here. Nor is there much Biblical warrant for the claim that God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc. in the absolute sense that you are espousing here.

    • pnyikos says:

      I say miracle-like-events because a genuine miracle I understand to be some act which breaks the laws of nature and which is brought about deliberately by God, an angel or a devil of some kind.

      The “laws of nature” have long been seen in modern physics as mere descriptions of things that hold true, without apparent exception, in our “observable” universe. The whole idea of God as a “lawgiver” is thereby shorn of all its connotations as having been laid down as inviolable even by God. Thus modern physics provides no support for the sort of extreme Deism which Galerimo seems to be championing.

      The term “miracle-like events” invites people along a slippery slope. One outcome is the claim that it is more of “miracle” if the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes was due to the crowd sharing food that they had brought with them, than for Jesus actually to have suspended the law of conservation of matter by producing bread and fish pieces out of nothing.

      My parish once had a visiting priest who said that this very thing was the opinion of “some theologians” during a homily on the Gospel reading, which described that event. Ever since then, I cringe whenever I see an article that touches on some critical aspect of Christian faith or morals and then says, “I leave that up to the expert theologians.”

  6. Alasdair says:

    Have we diverged somewhat from the brief?
    Nevertheless the concept of “constants” being invariable throughout time and in all places is a leap of Faith on the part of scientists many of whom claim that everything they believe is evidence-based and never faith-based. Anyone who makes such a statement about themselves is deluded of course. But then most people are deluded to a degree, or at least have blindspots in their self perception.
    It’s only five years or so since an experiment at CERN appeared to have shown a particle travelling faster than light. Subsequently it turned out to be an error, but for a few weeks the scientific community held its breath awaiting confirmation that one of the fundamental constants of the universe had been found to be variable in certain conditions.

    • Alan says:

      Alasdair – “It’s only five years or so since an experiment at CERN appeared to have shown a particle travelling faster than light. Subsequently it turned out to be an error, but for a few weeks the scientific community held its breath awaiting confirmation that one of the fundamental constants of the universe had been found to be variable in certain conditions.”

      What would someone’s views have been on the subject of particles travelling faster than light before, during and after this particular CERN example if they were indeed consistent with evidence-based beliefs?

      • Alasdair says:

        To the great credit of some of the more open-minded scientists, they were prepared, for a while, to entertain the possibility that the speed of light might after-all not be a universal constant. So those were presumably the ones to whom the constancy of constants was not an article of faith. In the end though, it all proved to be “academic”, and a mere footnote in history.

      • Alan says:

        “So those were presumably the ones to whom the constancy of constants was not an article of faith.”

        I followed the story of these results reported at CERN at the time with interest. I was willing to entertain the possibility of faster than light particles but wouldn’t have gone further than that on the basis of data from a single source – no matter who the source might be. I don’t put this down to any great open-mindedness on my part. Rather too many science fiction stories and a desire for space ships roaming the stars is probably to blame for my eagerness. Along with the fact that I’m not nearly as familiar with the evidence in favour of the strict speed limit and the full implications of it being broken as most physicists would be (relativity no longer holds true, the possibility of time travel, a cause following an effect?).

        I would give the doubtful scientists a little more slack before considering them all that close-minded or entrenched in their beliefs. Just a little more such evidence (confirmation from a different source etc.) and I would guess that by far the majority would soon have been willing to speculate on the possibilities. A single “Wow!” signal might not do it, but I think we can find a number of examples in the past that show their “faith” is far from unshakable in the face of new information.

  7. ignatius says:

    As I understand it, fluctuations in gravity wouldn’t be that great healthwise…. Fine to consider and speculate but to suggest that the effects of gravity might be responsible for miracles would be stretching it a bit to say the least…

    • Alasdair says:

      A tiny difference in the Universal Gravitational Constant (G) would have meant that the Big Bang would not have occurred, or conversely having occurred, matter would not have coalesced into stars and planets and the heavy elements like oxygen and carbon, essential for life would never have appeared. So that would be quite bad healthwise in the sense that we would never have existed in the first place. This is all part of what is described as the “fine tuning of the universe” a concept first described by the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle and developed by many others since.

  8. David Smith says:

    The future’s unknowable, so why, unless we’re paid to do so, spend time wringing our hands?

    Chemistry and medical science are filling the earth with large populations of disease-crippled and cognitively feeble older folk. Nature, in the past, forbade this, but nature’s been declared a public menace. The West have begun to solve this economic problem with government-supported suicide and euthanasia. Yesterday’s “Never!” has become today’s “Of course.” As for the similar economic problem on the other side of the age continuum, we’re likely to see the killing of the newly born, for both the convenience of the parents and the good of society. In mankind’s early days, infanticide was common. It’s an easy step from the abortion on demand we already have to a return to infanticide on demand. From a utilitarian point of view, both are perfectly acceptable solutions. Those of us who’d likely object have already begun to see ourselves marginalized, and worse. Establishments like Britain’s NHS will make all this happen very efficiently. In America, there’ll be much more shouting and obstructing, but that will eventually be dealt with and the results will be the same.

    And so much else might happen. Meteors, pandemics, bigger and better wars, alien invasions. Predicting the future’s a diversion for fiction writers, journalists, academicians, and politicians. The rest of us will muddle through, adapting as best we can, watching the passing show, helpless to intervene and generally glad for that.

  9. Geordie says:

    Will the variable constants make us age faster or slower?

    • David Smith says:

      Which ones? Aging seems to be pretty much a constant. The body simply wears out after about seventy-five years. The best medicine can do, apparently, is to prolong life beyond the point at which the body would naturally let go, making one’s last years miserable. In a sense, I suppose, Alzheimer’s disease, at least in great numbers, is a creation of medical “progress”. But even if senile dementia is eventually treatable, the clock will still run out on the vital organs and the system as a whole.

      Unfortunately, in the absence of a belief in the sanctity of life and an acceptance of mortality as both inevitable and good, death will continue to be thought of as a problem to be solved, an obstacle to be overcome. In cultures in which this physical life is all there is, pleasure and the absence of pain are the only ultimate goods. See Huxley, Aldous, “Brave New World”.

  10. Alasdair says:

    David “Ageing seems to be pretty much a constant.”. I’m not so sure! My wife and I spend a lot of time looking out for an “old lady” along the road. We were surprised recently to find that she is 2 years younger than we are. In terms of her capabilities she is 10 years older, even though she is still mentally sharp.
    On Saturday I joined an organised bike run led by an 81-year-old. He was the fittest member of the group which included people almost 40 years younger.

  11. Martha says:

    2nd Test

  12. ignatius says:

    Ok…just to make the case again: changes in gravital force disrupt the fluid balance in the thorax and abdomen..causing us to drown in our own secretions. This physiological change was a problem for early space travel. The point being that we cannot go on about ‘fluctuations’ as if these occurred in a kind of special vacuum where any faux theological speculation may be given weight. Any change in the major settings for human life…e.g gravity would cause major disruption and so it is extremely unlikely that miracles can be so easily explained away.

  13. milliganp says:

    I’m going to attempt to post on the original topic and see if there is any danger we might get back to it.
    The problems of Japan are not merely population imbalance. There is also a problem with their model of society and family life. My theory is that once it was accepted that the Emperor was not a God the whole basis of their culture was undermined and, amongst other things, the concept of duty went out the window. There has been no replacement of the old order, merely its decay and abandonment. Because Japan has remained a closed society, the usual mechanism of a rich economy importing labour from poorer countries has not happened.
    Japan has addressed this, in part, by investing heavily in robotics -and are now developing AI robots to care for and entertain the elderly.
    Alongside a low birth rate, Japan also has a significant problem with people choosing not to marry -or being unable, because of the rigid society. It’s a culture in terminal decline.
    One could draw parallels with the decline in fertility of “native” European populations; some speculate that Italian’s are having so few children that they will eventually become a Muslim country based on the higher birth rate of immigrants. Britain is one of the most multicultural societies in Europe as we have both European immigration and large communities based on former colonies and the Commonwealth. Our problem with elder care is that we won’t pay properly for it and thus we often get poor quality care from workers who are primarily ‘in it for the money’.
    Also, I believe, our (Britain’s) low birthrate is largely down to economics, people can’t afford to have families -there is no fundamental reason this could not be addressed with appropriate housing and social policies. I don’t like to mix politics and religion but the current government’s decision to characterise having more than 2 children as a luxury and to penalise those who rely on any state benefit is one of the most regressive policies ever devised.
    I realise I’m starting to ramble so I’ll finish for now but let’s get back on topic. By the way, I’m quite keen on variable light-speed theory myself.

    • galerimo says:

      Japan is certainly worth looking at as the first to cross this threshold of a falling birth rate. For them it is an ever present factor in economic management and even survival. But there are limits to it as a template for other cultures as you point out.

      UNHCR figures show an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from their homes in recent times. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

      Being “unprecedented”, the volume of this “people on the move” factor may not have been given weight in this demographic study.

      Regressive social policies in many governments dealing with refugees, under the guise of “border protection”, need to be revised for many reasons including from the point of view of the falling birth rate.

      Things change. Things need to change. And things will change with such vast hordes of humanity on the move.

  14. milliganp says:

    Quick apology to David and Alasdair, we are on topic.

  15. G.D says:

    With the technological advancements (in robotics & biology) an aged population will have no problem keeping a ‘decent standard’ of life in the future.
    As has been mentioned, sanctions to get rid of the ‘incapable’ members will probably be the acceptable norm; and ethnic/class cleansing will keep the numbers viable; and controllable. Leaving the rest (those with the connections and monetary means) to live as long as they can.
    With the advances of science and technology, to greater ages beyond the expected norms of today.

    Then again, ‘miracles’ can (do!) manifest to redress the imbalances inhumane actions put in place.

    But it’s only too obvious the wedge has been inserted (by the ‘elite’) already.

    When the ‘masses’ are brainwashed enough, and them too rebellious to be brainwashed reduced enough, and no there is no real threat against those draconian measures, they will be instigated mercilessly…..
    Unless that ‘miracle’ manifests first. Which is just as likely. Thanks be to God.
    Of course i only surmise not assert ….. or do i?

  16. galerimo says:

    One more thing in our “shared exploration of the relationship between science and faith” specifically here in relation to demographics – and that is, a word for the grace of God, by which, we normally survive.

    Certainly a believer is justified in calling for a miracle in the face of any looming apocalyptic catastrophe. But our day to day survival is always reliant on the grace of God, whatever the circumstances.

    And the fact remains that, on balance it is more amazing that we survive at all, given the vast evidence that favours our doom.

    How often do we come to the brink. The Cuban crisis in the 1960’s took us there and I am sure many unreported times ever since. Things like the Norman Conquest and the Roman Empire are murderous, brutal factors in the progress of civilizations.

    Together with the innumerable bugs and nasties that surround us and live happily within us in their unrelenting and destructive efforts.

    All undeniable and overwhelming blobs that sit on our landscape like time bombs.

    However, we survive by Grace.

    God’s life-giving approach to ever withdrawing humanity never stops in this arena of freedom.

    This is not an argument in favour of doing nothing, that too would be to ignore the factor of God’s ever present daily grace. But it is a serious consideration to bring some sense of balance when threats loom.

  17. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    — As one commentator said, “Having even advanced dementia doesn’t mean people know nothing, that they don’t have feelings. All they have is deep insecurity about their memories.” —

    He’s guessing. To know only that, he’d have to have been there and come back. And even if he had done that, he’d know only how *he* had felt. And, since memory is unreliable, he might well have got even that wrong.

    It’s curious how humans are compelled to believe that they know so many things about which they are in fact all but clueless. Each of us lives in a universe of his own creation, built from scratch, starting in the womb. We make it all up, and we trust blindly that we’ve got it right.

    • G.D says:

      David Smith says “Each of us lives in a universe of his own creation, built from scratch, starting in the womb. We make it all up, and we trust blindly that we’ve got it right.” Which i find a fascinating concept.

      While i don’t agree with it completely – objective reality and all that – i know what you mean (i think) and, to a degree, agree we all have a subjective view of the immediate ‘universe(s)’ we experience. Which affects/produces the physical reality we experience; and the mental constructs we live from/by.

      But, is it not in some sense a shared ‘making it up’ from a ‘collective’? Each of us ‘making it up’ from a foundation of inherited ‘genes’ from past generations, ‘ad infinitem’?
      And does each contribution, connected with each other, affect the reality produced for/by all?

      I can ‘see/remember’ a ‘reality’ which may differ from a n other’s (and both may be real or false who’s to say?) but does the fact that it is experienced differently, necessarily negate an ‘objective reality’ that is complete/whole within itself? A reality that could possibly be ‘realised/shared’ by each, and so manifested? … pure Joycean metaphysical speculation but, yes, find it fascinating.

      • ignatius says:

        Lets get this in perspective. We don’t make it all up as individuals. “We” refers to a narrative of cultural and economic history, to shared experience and shared psyche. No one ”makes it all up’ rather we are ‘made up’ into the flow of a narrative.much greater than the sum of individual parts.

      • David Smith says:

        Ignatius wrote:

        — Lets get this in perspective. We don’t make it all up as individuals. —

        We do in the sense that, genes aside, a baby’s mind is a tabula rasa.

  18. Alasdair says:

    I liked Milligamp’s point about Japan: “once it was accepted that the Emperor was not a God, the whole basis of their culture was undermined and the concept of duty went out the window. It’s a culture in terminal decline”.
    Later in his piece Milligamp says “Italians are having so few children that they will eventually become a Muslim country based on the higher birth rate of immigrants”.
    I wonder whether there is the same cause in both Japan and Italy. Italy is also a technologically advanced country with history, culture and traditions which has lost it’s predominant world-view. In their case it was Roman Catholic Christianity.

  19. ignatius says:

    ‘Culture’ is not so easily undermined.

    • David Smith says:

      Culture can be lost in a generation, or less. Building up takes hard work and dedication and time and sustained faith. Tearing down takes a moment. Each human is replaced every eighty years, at most. Dead human = dead culture. If the child fails to pick,it up, it’s gone.

      • milliganp says:

        I think that a generation is close to 25 years (we’re moving to 30+ as part of the trend to women starting families later). Thus certain aspects of culture can be lost in this 20-30 year time frame.
        My experience of church is that 60%-80% of teenagers abandon their faith and only about 20% return when they have families of their own – so our faith communities are reducing constantly.
        Faith is only one aspect of culture but it is strongly culturally linked to peoples ideals of family.
        Using Italy as example, family size has fallen off a cliff. If you’ve never sat around a table of 3 generations and large numbers of children it is an experience you are unlikely to want to reinvent.

  20. Iona says:

    David – I think Quentin’s quoted “commentator” is able to do considerably better than just make guesses. Sitting with, and observing, people with various degrees of dementia it is very clear that they have feelings and mental processes, even though their memories are confused and deteriorating. An old lady said to her grandson “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you”. The feelings remain though the memory for facts is unreliable. Listen to their snatches of conversation, – they are said to be “rambling” and that is an accurate term; they wander a little way along one train of thought, then disappear, and reappear in some other part of their past life, wandering through that for a while.
    By the way, whoever said carers are in it for the money, – have you any idea how poorly carers are paid? No-one is in it for the money, except in the sense that perhaps this is the only work they can get.

    • David Smith says:

      — An old lady said to her grandson “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you”. —

      That’s very interesting. Did you witness it personally? I ask because it sounds like the sort of story made up out of whole cloth that gets passed around the Internet as a bit of warm and fuzzy inspiration. But if you actually saw and heard of it, I’m intrigued.

  21. Iona says:

    David – no, I didn’t. And I could well believe that the old lady in question would be unable to express herself in such words. But I have seen people with dementia, anxious and agitated, who immediately calm down on the arrival of their spouse for a visit, and sit peacefully holding her hand for two or three hours on end, which surely demonstrates that the emotional attachment remains even if the memories for names and events have gone.

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