The darker side of ageing: towards an ethics of suffering that emphasises the primacy of witnessing

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Many older adults succeed in finding meaning in life, even in deep old age. There is, however, a minority of older adults, in particular among the oldest old, who feel that life no longer makes sense: they suffer from the consequences of old age, explicated in feelings of loneliness, social isolation and disconnectedness, and fears for (further) decline and dependency. This article seeks to address this darker side of ageing. It discusses probing questions including: what can we learn from the stories of those who severely struggle with the consequences of old age? And how might these stories guide us in finding ways how we – both as fellow human beings and as a society – can face and respond to suffering in old age? To achieve this, this article first briefly outlines the scholarship on suffering and explores the idea of suffering from life in old age. Secondly, drawing on empirical work, it reflects on the phenomenological question: what is it like to suffer from life in old age? What does it mean to live with a deep sense that life is no longer worth living? Then, thirdly, building on these insights, the aim is to work towards developing an ethics of suffering that emphasises the primacy of witnessing. It is argued that in the confrontation with manifestations of meaninglessness and suffering that cannot be solved or remedied, we need bystanders who are willing to name, to narrate, to give voice and connect to these experiences of suffering.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)323–342
Number of pages20
Journal Journal of Population Ageing
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2021


  • A communicative ethics
  • Ageing and old age
  • Phenomenology
  • Suffering (from life)
  • Tiredness of Life
  • Witnessing

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