Doing fun things with old people

The world is ageing fast. Every day, 10,000 American baby boomers turn 65. Figuring out what to do with them (/us 1) is something we need to think about. Better yet if it can increase well-being across the world.

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A recent Economist article described how some university campuses in the United States are building retirement homes. I hope they will forgive me quoting large parts of their article.

Most residents are having a ball. They get a university pass, which allows them to attend the same classes and cultural events as students, but with the distinct benefit of not having to take exams. Golf buggies can drive them around the sprawling campus, though many are still fit enough to mountain bike.

In their dorms, four restaurants serve better food than college grub and amenities include an art studio, a pool and gym, and a games room. Only the second floor feels institutional, with a memory-care centre and rooms for residents who need round-the-clock attention

This is part of a wider trend. An estimated 85 colleges in America are affiliated with some form of senior living. The idea sprang from two college presidents who wanted to retire on campus in the 1980s. Today, universities from Central Florida to Iowa State to Stanford offer senior-living arrangements. Andrew Carle, at Georgetown University, estimates that as many as 20,000 older Americans live like this

Bill Gates—not that one, but an 80-year-old former newspaper editor—moved to [one of these communities] with his wife, who has a PhD in chemistry, two years ago. They have made friends with residents but also, to their surprise, with younger students. “Being among young people is really invigorating,” says Mr Gates. At “pizza and a slice of future”, a discussion group about AI with pizza served halfway through, one of the topics was whether a lifespan of 200 or 250 years would be desirable. “The 20-year-olds were enthusiastic,” he reflects, but those in their 70s and 80s “had some reservations”, he chuckles.

When I saw this, I thought it was a downpayment on heaven. Being in community, attending lectures and discussion groups, surrounded by young people … oh man … what a fantastic way to spend your life’s teatime.

I heard another example from the UK. Our church used to run a day centre for the elderly. I heard of a similar day centre that had combined with a toddler group. So instead of the elderly looking at each across a circle of high-backed chairs, the elderly were looking at each other across a circle of high-backed chairs over a space filled with toddlers doing toddlery things. I can’t imagine how this wouldn’t be fun, perhaps even for all concerned.

Old people are changing. But the picture I have had of them so far in the UK is people on the edge of things, and unbelievably lonely, and deprived of the things that really matter, namely purpose and people. How astonishing and lovely it could be if they were folded back into new forms of extended families and communities; such healing, such wholeness.

Simple

Am in the midst of a book that my son bought me, lamenting ultra-processed food (UPF). Not news for many, I suppose, but an intriguing read for me. UPF is food that contains ingredients that you wouldn’t find in an ordinary kitchen. It’s put in to make products cheaper, longer lasting, easier; food designed for the poor.

I’m not sure I quite buy the idea that Big Food is evil like Big Tobacco (but I might be wrong). While Big Food makes a profit for shareholders, a lot of the shareholders who are thus enriched are poor people with pension funds, not the uber wealthy. And I think the scientists behind UPF were doing their best to make interesting and enjoyable food available to the masses. I’m sure I could, given a few changes of path, have become a food technologist myself with altruistic aims, spending my life on a good thing, not needing to channel my inner Cruella d’Eville.

But there are problems. Because UPF isn’t food, though it may have been once, it isn’t (so the argument goes) suited for human consumption. Obesity and many diseases follow in its train, and it targets the poor and nestles among those who struggle to make ends meet. (Or as Terry Pratchett described a maker of dodgy sausages, struggling ‘to make ends meat’.)

There are problems with this kind of book. How many books have been published over the years promising to be the definitive answer to the problems of good diet? Many. How many were backed by research? Many. How many have fallen out fashion? All of them. What will people think of this theory in 10 or 20 years? We shall see.

And yet the book’s appeal to make and cook food out of simple ingredients that belong in a kitchen, rather than engineered substances that are developed in a factory or delivered by a tanker, is appealing. Today I made a tomato soup for my grandchildren from just four ingredients (tinned tomatoes, an onion, chicken stock, and a wedge of butter. I deployed a slow cooker and a blender.) I make my own granola from honey, a neutral oil like sunflower oil, and oats, adding nuts, seeds and dried fruit and no funny stuff. I make my own bread on the same principles.

Better and deeper: I want to be simple before God. I love the description of bread back in the Old Testament, the bread for offerings: finest flour and the oil of squeezed olives: simple, simple. Pure, actually, because simple. That’s how I want to be before God, finest flour and oil mixed into a cake, not a packaged, complex, looks-good-but-isn’t convenience food.

Freedom’s laughter

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Just went to a fascinating seminar with my wife on ‘teacher retention and recruitment’, part of this year’s Cambridge Festival.

No, fascinating it really was. There were perhaps a number of messages but one struck home. Those with long memories have seen every trend in education come, go, and come again.

We are apparently–hopefully– at ‘peak prescription’. That is, teachers are being told (prescribed) how to teach. Teachers who mentor early career teachers are (it is feared) being told how to mentor them, the right framework, the right steps.

Never mind that children are complex, teachers are complex, solutions are complex and based on a teacher’s own style and personality. The teaching force is being trained like an army, and delivering a lesson is taught like cleaning and assembling a rifle, this way, or the wrong way.

The panel of speakers were lamenting that joy and laughter was disappearing – the joy and laughter that had kept some of them in the classroom for 30 years. It’s a bad sign when the laughter dies away.

Next to me, I could sense my normally-calm wife stirring in agreement. (As P G Wodehouse might have said of Jeeves, the eyebrow was raised a full quarter-inch).

There were other complaints. Pay has diverged from graduate equivalents in the past handful of years – – ten years ago, that wasn’t a problem. Workload has eased but still teachers aren’t given the opportunity to learn, grow, take on board the current research, deepen their practice. Management needs improvement. An HR department might help.

But how many times do we have to go round this? Central control looks like a short-cut to widespread efficiency, but it stifles the creativity that makes teachers excel. Education is not the same as training. The very thing you want to unleash (flourishing in staff and students) is flattened and numbed by standardization and mechanization. The shortcut, the quick way, runs into the sand.

Then look at other pieces of our austerity-savaged public services. Junior doctors? Defence lawyers? Pay, conditions, space, respect. Saving money has cost us so much.

person wearing blue and black blazer holding bag
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The slow-step of freedom

If you like to control things, you do not do well with freedom. You don’t have to look far to see this. You may see it in your workplace or even your home. We certainly see it in nations.

In some countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Eritrea, North Korea for example but even in these days, the New York City subway apparently), people call in the army to do non-military stuff. The army is efficient, or cheap, or a machine capable of being ordered around, people believe. And they like it for that reason.

In Egypt and Pakistan, generals, proper generals who have been exposed to army for a lifetime, and should know better, believe the army is efficient, so they give it jobs like building airports or retailing soap-powder. It is perhaps no surprise that these same generals also have the IMF Bailout Department on speed-dial.

I am a fan of freedom, but I am also my culture’s child. I like living in a country where you can say most things without a van turning up at your doorstep filled with people who mean you harm. I like the way people can start businesses without having to look over their shoulders in case the state (or the Party) seeks control or the army has already cornered that part of the market.

But is there an argument for freedom as a good thing in itself, a way to make a society prosper, despite freedom’s raucous and rowdy ways, so disturbing to the serenity of the autocrat’s pillow?

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), whom I heard about because of Lesslie Newbigin, was a Hungarian polymath. After earning cojones as a scientist (two of his students and one of his sons won Nobel Prizes), he changed roles at the University of Manchester from Professor of Physical Chemistry to Professor of Social Studies. He was a Catholic Christian. And he started writing about freedom and knowledge.

One of the ways to get wonderful things to emerge, he wrote, though I paraphrase, is to:

  1. set some boundary conditions
  2. let free agents do their stuff, freely, within the boundaries set.

It is (I think) classic liberal economics. It is also (as Polanyi taught), the driver of great science:

S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization.

Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.

Any attempt to organize the group … under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation

Michael Polanyi quoted, yes, in Wikipedia, which sort of proves the point.

I like this, a lot, because it is a rationale for freedom, not just in economics or science, and a rationale that goes beyond the idea that freedom is generally a nice thing to have. It is, given good guardrails, the way to get human societies to thrive and flourish further and wider than any single individual is capable of imagining or delivering. Being a herd, rather than being led by a demogogue, is our superpower.

Freedom looks inefficient, and slow, and awkward, and a roundabout way of getting things done– particularly if you like the idea of being in control. But it is not nearly so inefficient as the army.

Compounding

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My grandad was disabled because, as an 18-year-old, a month or two before the Armistice in the first war, he was gassed. He ended up losing a lung. All his life he had a mighty cough, and he never slept lying down. I knew him and look like him and apparently act like him.

Possibly he would have praised the power of compounding that meant his life was easier than his father’s. My great-grandad was bedridden with gangrene, cared for by his wife, in a small house with few luxuries beyond a piano. (There were not enough chairs, for example, so my grandad ate his meals standing up as a child.)

The compounding wealth and compounding technology had meant my grandad had a job and a comfortable home, all supplied by the council, and electricity and water and TV and a pension and holidays. The boy who’d run down the street when someone said, ‘Look, a car!’, grew to be the old man who watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon, and he was amazed and grateful for it all.

My memory of him is seated in his chair, by the coal fire, books by his feet, reading, reading (though not when we grandchildren were around when his sense of fun gave full rein). He was a keen socialist, and a Methodist preacher, and he belonged to that era when town councils and public funds supplied things for the common good–like libraries and education–and socialism and the welfare state sort-of worked.

Two generations on and what has compounding achieving? Economic compounding means welfare benefits are more generous and people’s means are on average greater. Technological compounding means I have computers and the internet, an electric bike and electric buggy, a pacemaker in my chest that supplies the heartbeats I need. Today we test drove a new car and I’ve recently joined a gym, whose machines adjust themselves to me, work out a fitness scheme, and lead me into it. None of this is merited. I have just floated on the rising tide of compounding: other people making little steps to make things good or better, to do things well, repeated and repeated and repeated.

Surely this points to the power of quiet revolution, of patient progress, of slow purposefulness. This tide is rising all over the world, subverted constantly by evil, but rising, rising.

The lube

Without it, the world grinds and splinters and crunches.

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Here’s a thing. I was reading one feminist criticising another and she accused her of being ‘joyless.’

It is a missing piece.

You can be campaigning for social justice, but if you’re joyless you’re a bit brutal.

You can be a brave single mum, but if you’re joyless, you’re just tired and hard.

You can be someone carrying heavy responsibilities and onerous duties but if you have not joy you’re just stressy and self-pitying.

You can be working hard for very needy people, but joyless, you’re not too attractive a person to be with.

Joy lightens loads and eases tensions. It makes smooth work of heavy work. Joy respects the opponent. Joy understands we’re all broken, all needy, all in pieces, only anything at all because we’ve been scooped up and smiled on and loved. Joy looks into the grimmness but isn’t itself begrimed. Joy peers into the depths of darkness but finds a spark.

Joy is the lube.

Hope valley

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Hope Valley is a place, in the English Peak District, where our men’s breakfast group held one of our annual walking weekends.

It’s also an emotional space, a rather life-saving one. So much about our world seems never to budge. The wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are in palaces. Lives are snuffed out at a dictator’s whim. Armies clash, soldiers die, loved ones mourn. Shells blow futures to smithereens. Praying people pray and pray and nothing happens.

‘God,’ said Desmond Tutu (I paraphrase), ‘we know you’re on the side of the right, but couldn’t you make it a little more obvious?”The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice,’ famously quoted Martin Luther King.

Perhaps I could be allowed to add: sometimes this arc of history seems very long, longer than scurrying our little human lives can bear. Many lives aren’t long enough to see the good arrive.

Nor does the arc always bend in entirely pleasing ways. Mandela became president of South Africa, a happy geometry. Not long afterwards he was followed by a thief who plundered the country, rather than built it, and then by a good person, but who has, by some accounts, yet to get a grip. So a bad thing was followed by a different bad thing (plunder) and then by another different bad thing (unmended brokenness).

That arc of history has non-linear qualities. It wobbles. Sometimes it veers in the wrong direction.

Which is why you need hope, and why, for now, it’s a valley.

Thanks to hope we can know that the arc will be tamed someday, that symmetry will be restored.

That the arc will come to rest on a mountaintop.

How to organize a patient revolution. Except it can’t be organized.

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It is intriguing how the Christian faith is revolutionary, but the way it is revolutionary is itself revolutionary.

In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5, Jesus addresses a crowd and imparts instructions, beginning with “Blessed are:”

  • The spiritually bankrupt
  • Those who lament and mourn
  • Those with the gentleness that humility brings
  • Those gagging for justice and the right
  • The kind and tender-hearted
  • The pure-hearted
  • The peacemakers
  • The slandered-because-of-me

Years later, Paul sets out a similar programme for the young church in Galatia:

  • love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Much could be said about this revolutionary behaviour. It’s extremely hard to stamp out. And — why would you want to? It’s humanizing. Perhaps it’s unstoppable.

The short-cut: a little frisson of freedom, soon disappointing

Here’s St Augustine, who, I’m realizing, did for Christian thought in the City of God roughly what Newton did for physics in the Principia Mathematica.

St Augustine is out to get you. Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

This starts being about pears, and is from Augustine’s Confessions. You have to take a slightly deep breath, but if you come out from under it, it’s worth keeping going.

A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night (having according to our pestilent custom prolonged our sports in the streets till then), and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them. And this, but to do what we liked only, because it was misliked. Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the bottomless pit. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself!

So I think what he’s saying is that he and his fellow lewd young fellows, after scandalously playing in the streets, ransacked a pear tree: not because they needed the pears, but just for the fun of it. But why? after a few more paragraphs, he tells us:

I might mimic a maimed liberty by doing with impunity things unpermitted me. 1

So: he knows the rules. But he tastes a kind of freedom by breaking the rules. It’s a ‘maimed freedom’. But it’s still a kind of freedom.

This is so true about everything and sits exactly at the dividing line between the short-cut and the slow. Rule breaking feels like the way to get stuff done. ‘Move fast and break things’ is now a Silicon Valley cliche. But (according to Augustine), the result is ‘a maimed freedom’.

In my younger days I watched two people I know well each make a large amount of money by starting their own businesses. (They didn’t know each other.) I observed that both broke the rules to get where they did. It would complete the narrative arc if I were able to say that both now regret it. I can’t. I’m not sure they do regret it, though each has changed focus somewhat.

But I do think that all the times we let our greed and impatience get the better of us, as I do, we invest in a maimed freedom, not the real thing. And my mate Augustine backs me up.

For those not feeling Christmassy

I couldn’t resist passing on this quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who hangs out on Substack, which platform I’m exploring these days.

She’s mouthy, sweary, tattooed, controversial and generally terrifying to me, but she knows a lot about grace, and she can write. I thank God, and her, for between them making the world a better place.

I quote:

…a gentle reminder that Christ will be born on Christmas with or without us “feeling” Christmas-y. Because this pattern of time, this story, these rituals and practices and songs have gone on long before us and will continue long after us. Sometimes we are floating in that river of faith, just swimming in it and feeling the transcendent warmth of the season. And other times we seem to be standing in just a half inch of the stuff; not even enough to cover our feet. But the power of the river, its source and its destination changes not at all. And both things: submerged in and barely having our feet in are the same. There’s no ranking system at work here. One is not “better” than the other. One does not “count more”. That’s just not how this thing works. Thank God

Nadia Bolz-Weber