Disability theology and ageing


“Successful ageing” has become a cultural obsession with a society that clings to “deep-seated cultural ideals of autonomy, self-determination and productivity”.

Maclaurin Goodfellow Associate Professor of Theological and Religious Studies Dr Michael Mawson

At a talk at the Te Kupenga – Catholic Theological College on July 21, Auckland theologian and the Maclaurin Goodfellow Associate Professor of Theological and Religious Studies Dr Michael Mawson spoke about his project, which tries to draw insights from disability theology that can be used to develop richer and more complex reflections on ageing.

“There are clear connections between ageing and disability. Experience of some level of physical or cognitive impairment increases significantly as we age into the later stages of life,” he said.

Dr Mawson said that, in New Zealand, it is estimated that 78 per cent of men and 80 per cent of women over the age of 80 experience some form of disability.

At the moment, he said the way we currently deal with ageing is through the disciplines of medicine and gerontology, both of which see ageing “as problems that need to be negotiated or overcome”.

On the other hand, he said disability theology and studies “have given significant and sustained attention in the ways that relates to what it means to be human”.

While the medical model attempts “to cure ageing”, gerontology promotes the idea that, with careful lifestyle choices, a healthy diet, exercise, good relationships as well as a positive outlook, people can avoid or at least, reduce age-related diseases.

“But what about the prospects in those residual 20 and 25 per cent more or less unhealthy years of a lifespan?” he asked. “In the end, ageing and its effects will disrupt and overtake even after it achieves its success.”

“Successful ageing seems to be at least in part driven by cultural avoidance of the messy, complex realities that accompany human aging. We cling to the hope that we will age successfully to avoid confronting the fact that our experience, at least in these final stages, is likely to be otherwise.”

Dr Mawson said that ageing and decline, along with its complexity and messiness, is integral to who we are as human beings.

This is where, he said, some insights from disability theology may be helpful in reflecting on ageing.

Dr Mawson drew largely from the works of disability theologians Deborah Creamer and Thomas Reynolds.

Creamer, author of Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, proposed a model in understanding disability: the limits model.

“Limits to rights are a normal and unsurprising aspect of life . . . key to the limits model is the recognition that disability is actually more normal than any other state of embodiment,” he explained.

He said our limitations also challenges us creatively pursue deeper relationships with God and others.

Thomas Reynolds, author of Vulnerable Communion, A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, had debunked what he (Reynolds) called the “cult of normalcy”.

Rather than being defined by independence and productivity, Reynolds suggests that human beings are defined by their relationality and vulnerability.

“Relational vulnerability is the rule rather than the exception. And acknowledging this allows for much more open and honest recognition of what we are,” Dr Mawson explained.

Tying the concepts explored by Reynolds and Creamer to ageing, Dr Mawson said that there is a need to go beyond the scripts and language of the medical and gerontological models.

“The idealised version of a beautiful body and mind should not be the variable for understanding what the human being is.”

He said that these theologians help us recognise is that bodily limits and vulnerabilities are never wholly negative nor positive.

At the very least, such limits or vulnerabilities  present opportunities for creatively deepening our relationships with one another and with God, he said.


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Rowena Orejana