Chris Pomfret, treasurer of POAMN, attended the 10th International Conference on Ageing and Spirituality in Toronto, Canada, in June 2023. He shares some insights from the experience.

The International Conference on Spirituality and Ageing is an excellent educational forum organized predominantly by the international academic world but also accommodates, and tolerates, non-expert/non-scholastic inputs from people like me.

I believe the words spirituality and aging are more strongly linked than we often realize, and it is most interesting to hear people’s perspectives on how spirituality is a huge asset to us as we age.

For a little humor, watch a three-minute video where forty seniors sing and play The Who’s hit song “My Generation” dating back to 1965. Ironically, the lyrics were about the young generation at the time feeling ostracized by older people. Here, we have 90-year-olds using the same words to challenge the views of younger generations.

This video was the start of a convivial discussion between Sally Mordike, a health professional from Charles Sturt University in Australia, and Rev. Dr. Jim Ellor, a Presbyterian minister from Baylor University, TX.

People born before the 1964 Boomer Generation tend to associate spirituality with the Holy Spirit, whereas after 1964, individuals use a much broader definition to include the environment and other natural elements. People who say they believe in nothing tend to revert back to their religious roots in times of trauma.

Communications between the generations is also a wide spectrum: Older generations are still wired for inter-personal (face-to-face) communications, whereas Boomers prefer phone calls (ear-to-ear). Gen X-ers like email, whereas millennials prefer IM’s and texts. Likewise for listening; there are trends that contrast the generations, with the younger people scrolling through phones while supposedly, and maybe actually, listening to the face-to-face conversation.

Jim and Sally concluded that generations have been significantly influenced by the times in which they lived, and they suggested that we all need to be aware of that. Culture, religion, country, politics, economics . . .mixed with emotional episodes such as hurt, sorrow, and bewilderment . . . make a complex recipe that form who we are.

Sally and Jim used a beautiful parallel of the lyrebird, an Australian bird that can imitate any sound that it hears so as to be able to fit into the environment in which it lives. It’s impersonation skills include the calls of other birds and the sounds of the naturalists’ camera shutters, loggers’ chain saws, and even car alarms with amazing accuracy. See the bird in this video from BBC Wildlife.

After listening to Sally and Jim’s captivating conversation, I was left thinking how the “Boomers and Beyond” could, using our spirituality, display behavior and actions that set the standard for civility and decency in our increasingly divisive world, hopefully for others to copy. This is another example of how people in their later years can make a valuable impact on those in our church and wider communities.

Another impactive talk was by Kathryn Mannix, author of “With the End in Mind”. A  palliative care physician in the U.K., she turns the tables on the traditional tendency to avoid talking about dying.

We have physical and psychological reflexes (swerves) that drive us to survive, e.g., a fear of spiders is both a physical and a mental (i.e., just thinking about them) issue.

We tend to do the same psychological swerve with death, i.e., “don’t even think about it,” as a means of allaying our fear. She believes that we need to embrace the language of death by not using phrases like passing on or passing away.

She challenges us to be changemakers so that we demystify the process of dying. We need to fulfill what’s important to a person at the end of their life, e.g., deciding not to use medication that stretches out living without improving any quality of life.

Life expectancy has doubled over the past 150 years. It is hard for us to imagine that forty was the life expectancy back in the mid-1800s. Perhaps we can help to change the public understanding of dying, i.e., the family is bereaved but becomes informed. She urges us to make sure that we tell our “village” our secrets so that they know what we want around us at our time of death. If they don’t know, they can’t help ,and they will feel helpless, guilty and hopeless.

We are being encouraged, maybe even urged, by professional gerontologists to be bold and shake off the traditional status quo about aging. Let’s talk more openly about dying and our own death and not perpetuate the previous prevalent approach of avoiding talking about the certainty that faces us all.

Similarly, let us in our senior years be beacons for doing the right thing and showing our fellow humans how to live life right, with civility and acceptance of different generations, cultures, and traditions. I believe we, as humans, are like lyrebirds and, maybe unknowingly, impersonate our surroundings so as to fit in with them. Maybe we will be impersonated by others. I hope so.