Category Archives: Old Age, Ageing, Elderly People

Old Age & Anthroposophy – Part 2

In the first part of this two-part posting, we looked at old age from an anthroposophical perspective, and noted the physical and mental development processes that go on as we age, in both their negative and positive aspects. All of us want to have a fulfilling old age despite the infirmities and diminishing independence associated with the last phases of life. This implies that, alongside looking after our physical welfare, we also need to be able to express our soul and spiritual capacities.

The elderly are growing closer to the end of their physical lives and the process of excarnation (preparing to leave the body), just as, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, young children are involved in the process of incarnation, of grounding themselves here on Earth in their bodies. With young children, up until the age of 9 or 10, there is still a part of them in the spiritual world. With old people, the gradual loosening of the astral body (Soul) and the ego (Self) from the physical body as they move closer towards death, means that part of their being is also surrounded by spiritual forces.

In a lecture given just over 100 years ago, Rudolf Steiner spelt out the importance of developing our inner life in old age:

“In future, human beings, the older they get, will need to take in spiritual impulses if they want to be able to grow younger and younger and really develop their inner life. If they do so, they may have grey hair and wrinkles and all kinds of infirmities, but they will get younger and younger, for their souls are taking in impulses which they will take with them through the gate of death. People who relate only to the body cannot grow younger, for their souls will share in everything the body experiences. Of course, it will not be possible to change the habit of going grey, but it is possible for a grey head to gain a young soul from the wellsprings of spiritual life.”

steiner 1917

Rudolf Steiner in 1917

One important question for us today is: how can we, both as individuals and as society, help to create the circumstances in which old people can flourish? In Part 1, I quoted from Dr Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal, in which he deplores the emphasis on the medicalisation of old age, and calls for a recognition that old people need to live in situations in which there is an understanding for the aspects of soul and spirit as well as physical care.  He describes the uninspiring nature of many nursing and old people’s homes as being “the consequence of a society that faces the final phase of the human life cycle by trying not to think about it. We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves any more.”

atul gawande via

Dr. Atul Gawande (photo via

In the UK, it is clear that we would be unwise to look to national or local government for any measures that might improve the situation. According to the Kings Fund, since 2009/10, local authority spending in England on social care for older people fell in real terms by 17% but in the same period, the number of older people aged over 85 and over rose by almost 9%. It has also become much more difficult for people to get publicly funded social care; numbers have fallen by 25 per cent since 2009 (from 1.7 million to 1.3 million) and in 90 per cent of local authorities only those with ‘substantial’ or ‘critical’ needs will get publicly funded services.

The Local Government Association (LGA) “State of the Nation 2017” report on Adult Social Care Funding recorded that local authorities will have managed £16bn reductions in funding from national government between 2010 and 2020.  Further, the LGA estimates a funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020, of which £1bn is for adult social care. Consequences of underfunding include:

  • An ever more fragile market;
  • Growing unmet need;
  • Further strain on informal carers;
  • Less investment in prevention:
  • Continued pressure on an already overworked care workforce;
  • Decreased ability of social care to help mitigate pressures on the National Health Service (NHS).

In the continuing absence of believable, long-term proposals from national government, it is clear that the State is losing the ability to provide well for the care needs of its growing older population. A new impulse is needed, one that not only puts more control into the hands of individuals as they address the challenges of later life, but also extends autonomy as far as possible and reduces pressure on our NHS.

What kind of living arrangements would support older people and help them to make the most of the last phase of their physical lives? Many initiatives have demonstrated the power of civil society to make a difference. A recent article by George Monbiot in The Guardian has shown that a community of like-minded people with shared needs and aspirations can successfully create the conditions for an extended and fulfilling old age.  The article describes how, over three years, the town of Frome in Somerset has initiated a collective project to combat isolation and has seen a dramatic 17% fall in hospital admissions as a result, while Somerset as a whole by contrast saw a rise of 29% in the same period.

There are many examples from Europe and the USA of groups that have formally or informally come together for companionship and mutual support.  Atul Gawande, in the book mentioned above, cites instances of older people living with full control of their lives, not “being done to” – whether it be by the medicalisation of old age or well-intentioned strangers – but “doing” their lives for themselves. An example of such a facility is the Nikolaus Cusanus Haus in Stuttgart-Birkach, Germany, recently visited by a dear friend of mine, who was much impressed by it; and which describes itself as “a community in old-age that is based on freedom and independence and is inspired by the anthroposophical image of man.”

nikolaus cusanus

The Nikolaus Cusanus Haus in Stuttgart

Another idea which, with its emphasis on community, has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of older people, is co-housing. The concept originated in Denmark in the 1960s and quickly spread across Europe, the UK, US and Australasia. In co-housing schemes, people have their own fully self-contained house or flat but there are also shared facilities, usually in a Common House (a little like a community centre), which they can use 24/7 as much or as little as they wish.  Most co-housing communities will cook and eat together one day or more a week.  The typical Common House will thus contain a commercial style kitchen, a dining area, a large multi-purpose room (meetings, drama, film, parties, yoga, etc), a workshop for repairs, a laundry and a quiet room.  Co-housing is a cost-effective, fulfilling lifestyle for all ages but particularly suited to older people as it makes isolation virtually impossible.  Balancing this is the ability to participate as much or as little as people choose, allowing them to strike their own balance between community and privacy. UK examples of co-housing include Springhill in Stroud, Laughton Lodge in Lewes, Forgebank in Lancaster, LILAC in Leeds and the Threshold Centre in Gillingham, Dorset.

A good example of how co-housing can make a difference is OWCH (Older Women’s’ Co-Housing) in Barnet, North London. OWCH is a group of women over fifty who have struggled against the odds to create their own community in a new, purpose-built block of flats. As an alternative to living alone, they have created a senior co-housing community which is enriching the last years of many older women, and reducing pressures on local health and care services. What OWCH demonstrates is that a group from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, with ages ranging from early 50’s to late 80’s, who are all very different, with their own particular interests, family connections and work – (some of them are still working) – or health difficulties or disabilities, can nevertheless create the circumstances to keep themselves as self-dependent and active as possible as they get older.

OWCH (Older Women’s Co-Housing) in Barnet, North London

A similar aspiration is now seeking to come to expression at Emerson College, an independent adult education college in East Sussex, based on the principles of anthroposophy. Emerson College Trust, St Anthony’s Trust and the Anthroposophical Society in Sussex have joined forces to provide a co-housing scheme for older people at Pixton House in the heart of the Emerson College campus.  The examples mentioned above show the value that such a place could have in the quality of care, nutrition, social and cultural life provided to older people.


Pixton House at Emerson College

What we are calling the Pixton Third Age (P3A) Project will consist of the renovation, refurbishment and extension of Pixton House, a Grade 2 listed early 19th century mansion house, so as to create around 20 self-contained apartments for older people, together with some shared facilities.  The intention is that residents will be able to participate fully in their own Pixton community but also in the wider cultural life of the College, partially formalised into what is called the Emerson Living & Learning Community. Residents will be encouraged to contribute as much as possible to the wider community, sharing their skills and experience for the benefit of all ages. This project will give opportunities for inter-generational meetings and mutual support on the Emerson campus. The facility will be owned and run by an independent trust to include the residents, and in collaboration with Emerson College.

Even at this early stage, several people (individuals and couples) have expressed an interest in coming to live at Pixton. An architect, project manager, quantity surveyor and planning consultant are currently being appointed to take us to the point where a planning application can be submitted to Wealden District Council. We anticipate that apartments should be ready for occupation by late 2020, and over the coming months we will be bringing together prospective residents with the architect and project group in order to discuss the design and accommodation details that will best meet the needs of older people.

pixton third age

The Lily Pond on the South Lawn at Pixton.

It seems likely that the values for which co-housing stands – privacy combined with active community, resident control and autonomy –are sought after by a far wider group of the older population than is currently familiar with the term “co-housing.” The combination of community, looking out for one another and self-governance holds an appeal for what one might call the younger generation of older people, for whom outmoded models of social care no longer seem relevant or desirable. People like to be active in their own care whenever possible, and still wish to be able to contribute and feel needed, rather than to be the passive recipients of care that is “done” to them.

Of course, care from other people will be needed at times, although P3A will be a co-housing scheme rather than a registered care home. Many elderly people are no longer in situations where, for example, they regularly receive touch in a caring way. Their spouse and close friends or family may have already passed on or be in a depleted health situation. The warm, gentle, caring touch of a massage or other therapy can be a source of light and encouragement in an elderly person’s life. The provision of care as and when required, supplied by those experienced in anthroposophical therapies and medicines, will be an important component of the services available to P3A residents, and we are in the process of assembling a team of carers and anthroposophical nurses so that this can happen.

As an aside, I’ve recently read an interview between Emanuel Zeylmans (author of the 4-volume “Who Was Ita Wegman?”) and Wolfgang Weirauch, in which they discuss what Steiner would have done with the insurance money after the burning-down of the first Goetheanum, if he had been asked for his advice by the 15-member building association who controlled it:

“EZ: Of course there is no point in speculating what Steiner would have done with this money. But there is a problem connected with it, for insurance sums consist of money which does not derive from people who affirm anthroposophy. At today’s rate we are talking, after all, of a sum amounting to between seventy and one hundred million Swiss Francs. From all that I have read of Steiner’s views on the nature of money, I am fairly sure that he would not have used this sum for rebuilding the new Goetheanum. I think it is far more likely that he would have put it into other projects that would also have had real relevance for our present times.

WW: What kind of things do you mean?

EZ: In Dornach there was, for instance, no provision whatsoever for the elderly and I can easily imagine that he might, first, have set up a home for all those who needed it. He might also have been able to realise his dream of building a clinic behind the Goetheanum. In my documented research, I published proof that Steiner had planned a clinic on the orchard meadow behind the Goetheanum – a one hundred bed hospital in fact. In other words, he would have transformed the money by using it for another purpose. That is the important thing – to redeem money. This is only one example of how an intrinsically deeply creative person like Rudolf Steiner could have used the money. This would probably have led to quite a new sort of set-up in Dornach, through which he would then have received donations to rebuild the Goetheanum.”

To me, this exchange is deeply meaningful in the light of our own intentions for Pixton, both in terms of provision of accommodation for the elderly and also for provision of anthroposophical care. It indicates to me that our instincts are on the right lines and that by doing what we are doing, it will lead in ways we can’t yet identify to the unfolding of Emerson College’s future direction.  I hope it will also seem significant to you! If you would like to add your own support, one very tangible way would be to contribute to the funds currently being raised to support the preparatory work towards a planning application. You can do this online via the St. Anthony’s Trust website here. Thank you.



Filed under Co-Housing, Emerson College UK, Old Age, Ageing, Elderly People

Old Age and Anthroposophy – Part I

According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, old age does not now begin until one is 74 years old. For the anthropopper, that means he still has a few more years of late middle age until cheeky young whippersnappers can legitimately call him old. But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t already begun to think about what it means to be old and how to prepare for it.

The experience of others hasn’t always been encouraging. Throughout the centuries, old age has held terrors for those approaching it. Here, for example, is the French poet, Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585):

Ma douce jouvence est passée

Ma première force est cassée

J’ai la dent noire et le chef blanc

Mes nerfs sont dissous et mes veines

Tant j’ai le corps froid ne sont pleines

Que d’une eau rousse au lieu de sang


J’ai la tête toute étourdie

De trop d’ans et de maladies

De tous côtés le soin me mord

Et soit que j’aille ou que je tarde

Toujours après moi je regarde

Si je verrai venir la mort.



My sweet youth has passed

My former strength is broken

My teeth are black and my hair is white

My nerves have gone and the veins

In my cold body feel as though they’re full of

Thin red water rather than blood.


My head is hare-brained now

After too many years and illnesses.

On all sides cares come up to bite me

And, whether I go forward or hang back,

Always I look behind me

To see if death is coming.


Poor Ronsard was only 61 when death came to claim him. But his poem lives on and has been superbly set to music by the composer Jacques Leguerney; you can hear it sung here by the baritone Bruno Laplante.

In more recent times, the Hollywood actress Bette Davis (1908 – 1989) was quoted as saying: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” She suffered much illness towards the end of her life and was speaking from bitter experience. The author Philip Roth put it even more strongly, in his novel Everyman: “Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre.”

As we age, our bodies become denser, drier, more fragile and start to lose flexibility. We become aware that that our vital functions don’t work as well as they used to do. Blood vessels, joints, the muscle and valves of the heart and even the lungs pick up substantial deposits of calcium and turn stiff. Our hair doesn’t grow as much as when we were younger, and ageing symptoms become more visible. Our strength diminishes, our mobility is reduced, we feel fatigue more rapidly. Sight and hearing begin to fail. Alongside these physical changes, our memory can become undependable and our mind may work more confusedly.

This reduction in our physical and mental powers can also involve us in further unhappy consequences. We retire from our job, and if we have not been able to build up savings or a personal pension, our income becomes so much reduced that we may find ourselves living at little more than subsistence level on a state pension. And yet worse things can happen during this period. We may lose our life-companion; our children might move away or forget us; our friends die off. We can become isolated and lonely.

And then there is a big change: it may come through a sudden medical emergency or it may be a long, slow decline, but there is an unquestionable, inescapable crisis awaiting us in the business of living. The ebbing of the life forces means that the daily chores of shopping, cooking meals, cleaning and physical hygiene become ever more strenuous until one reaches the stage where one cannot do it anymore and neglect begins to creep in. We are leaving behind what has been the normal, natural self-dependence of the main part of our adult life and entering upon the dependence on other people that basically characterises old age. One can see why Bette Davis concluded that old age was no place for sissies.

This all sounds quite grim, and can indeed be so. But what it leaves out are the soul and spiritual qualities of the human being. From an anthroposophical perspective, old age – like childhood, youth and adulthood – is a phase of life in which certain developmental processes take place. Old age and early childhood can be compared. The spiritual being of the child still only surrounds and does not yet penetrate the physical body, and because of this we feel the child is near to the spiritual world from which it recently came. This is part of the reason for the feeling of protectiveness which it draws out in us. In elderly people the spiritual forces are withdrawing from the physical body and also surround it, so that old people, too, are near to the spiritual world to which they will soon return. In both children and old people we can see a certain helplessness and clumsiness because they have not yet, or have no longer, the power in their limbs possessed by the fully incarnated adult. Yet though the bodily forces diminish in old age, there are still positive developments to discover as we prepare for excarnation.

Looking at the life forces in old age, one can see that, as they become freer from predominantly physical tasks, they can be used in the service of further development of thinking. The famous Japanese painter Hokkaido declared that everything he did before he was 73 was quite worthless. Titian painted his most powerful works when he was almost 100. Verdi composed Falstaff – his last, and one of his best operas – as he was approaching the age of 80. It seems likely that they were able to do these things because, with increasing age, the path that leads inwards progresses on and on, while what is going on in the outside world becomes less important and everyday events become less interesting. As we age, greater insights arise concerning the big questions of life and a new understanding emerges as to what is essential, and what no longer matters.

The wisdom which comes to many people with old age can also be of benefit to younger people. A good example of this is the tribute written here for the late Nick Thomas by a pupil. Such wisdom in the third and last phase of our life can be seen as the “fruit” of having lived consciously, while continuing to work on oneself and cultivating an active inner life. But a fruit also contains the seeds, which is actually what is happening to us in old age: we are developing desires and motives for a new life, with the intent to find balance for the past chapters.

Neither we as individuals nor society as a whole are very good at providing the circumstances in which these more positive aspects of old age can come to fruition. There is a kind of transitional stage, which for most people is likely to be somewhere between the ages of 75 – 85. Before this stage most people are still independent, while beyond it most are either partially or totally dependent on help. We are reluctant to prepare ourselves for this gradual or sudden loss of independence. Perhaps we are not very realistic about assessing our position, or perhaps the idea of anything less than the complete independence we have got used to during our adult life is intolerable. But gradually, (and there are of course a few exceptional cases of people who can manage on their own into their late 80s or even 90s), for most of us a mild or total dependence on others comes about. All this can be regarded as an expression of the fact that in old age the astral body (Soul) is becoming loosened from the physical body and the ego (Self) is gradually withdrawing from the earthly realm. *

As our ability to be independent fades, we look to others for help. Such help was traditionally supplied by the family, but that is becoming unusual in today’s social conditions. Usually what happens is that we go into a care home or a nursing home. The prosperity of society in the West has enabled even the poor to expect such homes to provide nutritious meals, professional health services, physical therapy, bingo and a lounge with a television on at all times. These homes have eased old age for millions of people and made proper care and safety a norm to an extent that would have been unimaginable a few generations ago. Yet, still, most of us consider modern old age homes to be frightening, desolate and undesirable places in which to spend the last phase of our lives. We need and desire something better.

According to Dr Atul Gawande, in his book Being Mortal, in which he deplores the emphasis on the medicalisation of old age, “this is the consequence of a society that faces the final phase of the human life cycle by trying not to think about it. We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves any more.”

We can and should do better than this. It should be a matter of the greatest importance that old people are supported by a community in which there lives an understanding for the aspects of soul and spirit as well as physical care. Maybe old people do not need more care-giving, but greater understanding for the role of old age and its mission. The homes in which old people live should be centres of culture, with lectures, musical evenings, creative courses and opportunities for the residents themselves to contribute their own gifts. We all need a purpose, and a sense of being needed – and there should also be opportunities for inter-generational contacts from which both young and old can benefit.

In the second part of this post, I will write about some encouraging examples of such communities, including one which is being planned for Emerson College in the UK.


* Rudolf Steiner’s view of the human being includes the idea that each of us has four bodies (the physical, and three non-physical “bodies”: the etheric, or life body, the astral body or Soul and a fourth one, called the ego or Self. The etheric body is essentially an energy body that contains and forms the physical. It is this etheric body which maintains the physical body’s form until death. The astral body (Soul) provides us with awareness and self-awareness, our emotions and our feelings and intentions. The ego or Self is the immortal and inalienable core of a human being, which goes with us from one incarnation to the next. There are another three bodies in potential – the spirit self, the life spirit and spirit man – which are to come to full development in later stages of human evolution.


Filed under Old Age, Ageing, Elderly People