Ageing and Despair

On the Existential Gravity of Ageing
Towards Patience and Hope for Health and Care

(see details of event speakers below)

Despair corresponds to the darker side of ageing, which is often occluded by research that celebrates emancipatory ideals and offers strategies for promoting ‘successful aging’. Such ideals and strategies often focus on narratives of agency, i.e., urgent action and market commodities that claim to reverse or delay the onset of aging. Other such research illuminates extrinsic disadvantages that compound age-related distresses, giving attention to income inequalities, housing inadequacies, and service limitations that can be remediated by providers or provisions. Yet little attention is given to the type of subjective affairs and experiences, i.e., the existential gravity, of ageing and the experiences of pain, suffering, and despair. 


With 10 million persons over the age of sixty-five in the UK at present, an absolute statistic expected to double by 2050, it seems appropriate to think about the moral reality of aging with a focus upon not only the existential gravity but also the response, which might nurture new ways of thinking about health care and the provision of hope for an aging population. Such an endeavour becomes increasingly significant when one considers similar statistics: US statistics estimate their elderly populations will double by 2060, accounting for 24% of the population. Stats Canada indicates a similar relative statistic of 23% of the Canadian population will be over sixty-five by 2030. Likewise, Europe (including the UK) projects a 51% old-age dependency ratio by 2070. 


The following will gather theologians and philosophers as well as medical professionals, gerontologists, and health care practitioners such that the gravity of old age, including subjective experiences of suffering and despair, can be foregrounded. Although aging, suffering, and despair offer the thematic contours for these presentations, further thinking about essential virtues for overcoming despair and the meaning or practices of hope will also be examined such that health and care might be resourced, and public policies, educative experiences, and professional practices might be re-examined. 

Plenary Speakers

Frederik (Frits) de Lange, PhD

is Professor of Ethics at the Protestant Theological University, Groningen, the Netherlands, and Extraordinary Professor in Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University, South-Africa. Since 2005 his research concentrates on questions related to modern life course, gerontology, and the ethics of care. He wrote several books on the subject: De mythe van het voltooide leven [The Myth of a Completed Life], 2007; De armoede van het zwitserlevengevoel [The Shabbiness of Third Age Hedonism], 2008; and Waardigheid voor wie oud wil worden [Dignity—for who wants to grow old], 2010; In andermans handen: Over flow en grenzen in de zorg [In someone else’s hands. On flow and limits in care], 2011. As a Member in Residence of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, he published Loving Later Life: An Ethics of Aging (Eerdmans, 2015). 


Elizabeth (Els) van Wijngaarden, PhD

is Associate Professor in Care Ethics at the Universiteit Voor Humanistiek [University of Humanistic Studies], Utrecht, The Netherlands. With her PhD on ‘completed life in old age’, she was the first to explore experiences of relatively healthy older people with a strong wish for a self-directed death as they considered their lives no longer worth living. Her study was awarded the prestigious Research Prize 2017 of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. With her current research she builds on this pioneering work, focussing on death and dying in old age with a specific interest for and the role of choice and control at the end-of-life. Her other research interests include: dementia, experiences of suffering, meaning and meaninglessness at the end-of-life. 

Featured Speakers

KATHERINE FROGGATT, PhD, has worked in ageing and palliative care for over 30 years, having qualified as a nurse before moving into higher education working in nursing and applied health research departments. From 2013 to 2019 she was Professor of Ageing and Palliative Care at the International Observatory on End of Life Care at Lancaster University. She is currently undertaking a Grey Gap year exploring ways to develop her work in these areas.

CHRIS GILLEARD, PhD, is Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences at the University of Bath and the Division of Psychiatry at University College London. He has published in the areas of psychology, medicine, history and sociology as they relate to ageing and old age. He is also a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

SARAH HARPER, CBE, DPhil, is Clore Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford, a Fellow at University College, and the Founding Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Sarah served on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, which advises the Prime Minister on the scientific evidence for strategic policies and frameworks. In 2017 she served as the  Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Sarah is a Director and Trustee of the UK Research Integrity Office and a member of the Board of Health Data Research UK. Sarah was appointed a CBE in 2018 for services to Demography.

JOSHUA HORDERN, PhD,  is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics in the Faculty of Theology and Religion and a Governing Body Fellow of Harris Manchester College. He leads the Oxford Healthcare Values Partnership, collaborating closely with cross-disciplinary academic colleagues, the UK Medical Research Council/Cancer UK funded Stratification in Colorectal Cancer Consortium, the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine and a number of patient organisations. He is a member of the Royal College of Physicians Committee for Ethical Issues in Medicine and co-author of the RCP’s report Advancing Medical Professionalism (2018). He is also the Humanities Division academic lead for the Medical Humanities/Humanities and Healthcare programmes and sits on the TORCH management committee.

CHRISTINE LAI, DProf, is concurrently a Research Associate at Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (MBIT) at Cambridge, guest professor at Hong Kong Holy Spirit Seminary College of Theology and Philosophy and supervisor of Professional Doctorate of Practical Theology at Anglia Ruskin University. Currently, she is conducting research on “Spirituality of Integral Human Development for ageing in Hong Kong: an intercultural and interfaith approach.” With professional doctorates in both business administration and practical theology, Dr. Lai has been promoting holistic wellness and everyday spirituality through writings and lectures on “Life planning and spiritual practice,” “Transformation through Everyday spirituality,” “From Midlife to Ageing: Ultimate Meanings of Life in the Days of the Pandemics.” Recently, she has co-organized with MBIT the first international webinar on “In search of Meaning and Fulfillment through Interreligious Dialogue and Interculturation: Vatican Council II, Pope Francis and Beyond.” She is also the founding member and Vice-Chairman (International) of Asia Academy of Practical Theology (AAPT) Hong Kong.

MICHAEL MAWSON, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology and Ethics and Research Fellow at the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre at Charles Sturt University, Australia.  He was previously Senior Lecturer in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen.  He is the author of Christ Existing as Community: Bonhoeffer’s Ecclesiology (OUP, 2018) and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (OUP, 2019).  He is currently working on a new book on theology, phenomenology and ageing.

ASHLEY MOYSE, PhD, is the McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow in Christian Ethics and Public Life, and member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford. His research labours to engage with both theological and philosophical ethics, with particular interests in philosophy of technology, bioethics, and medical humanities. He has published several books, including a recent co-edited anthology, Treating the Body in Medicine and Religion: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Perspectives (Routledge, 2019), and The art of living for the technological age: Toward a humanizing performance (Fortress, 2021).

CAROLINE NICHOLSON, PhD, RGN, FHEA, holds a chair in Palliative Care and Ageing within the School of Health Science, University of Surrey and is an Honorary Nurse Consultant at St Christopher’s Hospice London. She is a current recipient of the Health Education England/ National Institute of Health Care Research Senior Clinical Lectureship. She is the UK representative on the European Association of Palliative Care task force into ageing and co-lead on End of Life for the British Geriatric Society (BGS). 


Her research programme seeks to improve the experience of and care delivery to older people living with complex needs. She is particularly interested in the transitions that occurs in the last phase of life. Her clinical and academic practice includes sustaining and building the care workforce to meet the needs of older people living and dying overtime. She is co-editor of the BGS guidance on end of life and frailty for clinicians across the multi-disciplinary team. 

SEAMUS O'MAHONEY, MD, is a gastroenterologist and general physician at Cork University Hospital, and clinical professor at University College Cork Medical School, where he teaches the medical humanities, ethics, and professionalism.  He worked for many years in the NHS, and since 2001 has been based in his home city. He has been a critic of his own profession, and his books include The Way We Die Now, which  won the BMA Chairman’s Choice award in 2017, and Can Medicine Be Cured? which was published in 2019. He is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books and the Medical Independent; he has written also for the Observer, the Daily Mail, the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner and the Saturday Evening Post. He is a member of the Lancet Commission on “The Value of Death”.

AUTUMN ALCOTT RIDENOUR, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. Her primary interests are in the areas of theological, philosophical, social, and bioethics, with attention to history and systematic theology. She is the author of Sabbath Rest as Vocation: Aging Towards Death (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018) and has published articles in Christian Bioethics, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, The Hastings Center Report and several book chapters for edited volumes. Her current research project surrounds the interface of smartphones, devices, and the theological significance of presence within relationships. 

TYLER VANDERWEELE, PhD, is John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. he is also Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality and Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, and, for the 2019-2020 academic year, the George Eastman Visiting Professor at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He holds degrees from Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and the University of Pennsylvania, in mathematics, philosophy, theology, finance and applied economics, and biostatistics. His research spans social and psychiatric epidemiology; methodology for causal inference and measurement; the science of happiness and flourishing; and the study of religion and health, including both religion and population health and the role of religion and spirituality in end-of-life care. He is the recipient of the 2017 COPSS Presidents’ Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies. He has published over three hundred papers in peer-reviewed journals, and is author of the book Explanation in Causal Inference, published by Oxford University Press.

CHRISTOPHER WAREHAM, PhD, received his doctorate from the European School of Molecular Medicine and the University of Milan. He joined the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics in 2014, where he is currently Senior lecturer, Head of the MSc Research Methods Unit, and Head of Undergraduate Studies in Bioethics for the Faculty of Health Sciences. He sits on the Research Ethics Committee (Non-medical) of the University of the Witwatersrand, and consults on ethical issues in biomedical science, education, and research. Christopher’s core areas of research are the Ethics of Ageing, the Ethics of Emerging Technologies, and African Bioethics. He is an NRF Rated Researcher and has previously been awarded a European School of Molecular Medicine Doctoral Fellowship, and a South African National Research Fund (NRF) Innovation Scholarship. Wareham is editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Handbook on the Ethics of Ageing. Other publications can be found in the following journals: Journal of Bioethics Inquiry; BMJ--Journal of Medical Ethics; Ethical Theory and Moral Practice; Journal of Medicine and Philosophy; and Bioethics.