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Aging is a feature, not a bug

Aging is a feature, not a bug



by Laura Darling


Until I began working at Episcopal Senior Communities, I hadn’t paid any particular attention to the over-60 set. As far as I can remember, working with seniors was never mentioned in seminary. For the first dozen years of my ordained ministry, I worked primarily with youth and young adults. Over and over I learned how important it was to reach out to younger people and empower them for ministry – something that I still firmly believe and practice. As a corollary, most of the messages I saw about congregational development bemoaned the graying of our churches as a sign of our failure and a harbinger of our doom.


But here is what I didn’t know until I started working with seniors:

  • In 1950, only 8% of the U.S. population was 65 years or older. In 1970, it was not quite 10%. In 2010, it was 13%. And in 2014, it was 14.5%.
  • In the 1950s, a 65-year-old could expect to live an additional 15 years. Today, it is closer to 25 years.
  • For the next 20 years, approximately 10,000 people will turn 65 every day.


Learning this has made me ask a new question: What if the aging of our congregations is a feature, not a bug?


Consider it this way: what if I told you you could have a congregation full of committed members with significant life experience, an interest in big questions of faith, lots of free time to devote to the church’s life and ministry, and who are likely to stay with your congregation for 20 to 25 years. Would you celebrate that gift?


This is what we have in the older members of our congregations. But instead of rejoicing, I see us anxiously looking past them, indicating in ways large and small that they are taking up the space that should belong to others. Just the other day, I saw a tweet from a prominent youth ministry conference that quoted a speaker saying “What would it be like if we forget about older people? What if we focused all time & energy on young people?” I hope the speaker went on to say this would be bad. I’m worried that he did not. We have to stop this either/or thinking. There is room for everyone, of all ages, at the table.


May is Older Americans Month. As a church, let’s take this opportunity to consider both our attitudes toward our older members, and also our plans for working with them and with the seniors in our communities as they (and we) age.


Here are some areas to consider and some resources for you:

  • Preventing social isolation: Social isolation is now recognized as a serious health issue. Churches can literally save lives by connecting with isolated seniors. Are there transportation options for seniors who cannot drive to come to services? Do you have a system in place to check on members when they have not been attending as they usually do? When members are homebound, are there people who regularly visit? Episcopal Senior Communities offers the program Senior Center Without Walls with phone-based and online programs for homebound seniors, available nationwide, which can provide support and social connection for seniors in your congregation.
  • The transition to retirement: Moving into retirement can be a very difficult transition for many people. Does your congregation ritually mark this transition? Do you provide support for those making the shift from a work-related identity to that of retirement? Do you help people explore their goals and priorities in this new phase? Buried deep in the Book of Occasional Services, right before the Episcopal Services, are “Guidelines for Use on the Occasion of a Retirement or Work Transition” that may provide you with some suggestions on how to do this.
  • Spiritual Formation with older adults: Who is the target audience of your spiritual formation programs? Do you offer intergenerational programs that are inclusive of all ages? Do you have any programs geared towards the spiritual issues that come with aging? Do you offer formation programs in the daytime for those for whom driving at night is difficult? I encourage you to read Dorothy Linthicum’s recent article on Faith Formation with Older Adults in the Fall 2015 edition of Lifelong Faith for a deeper exploration of this topic.
  • Caregiver support: Do you know who in your congregation is a caregiver to an aging spouse or parent? How can your congregation care for the caregivers? Check out the program Share the Care to reduce burnout for caregivers and offer your congregation a plan to support them.
  • Elder abuse awareness: Clergy are mandated reporters of elder abuse, just as we are for child abuse. Have you been trained to recognize the types and signs of elder abuse? Do you know how to report elder abuse to your local Adult Protective Services? The Diocese of California has a Policy for the Protection of Elders and Dependent Adults that you might find helpful. Also, knowing that older adults are often the victims of financial abuse, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has an excellent list of resources to protect seniors at You may also want to provide a forum on this topic on or around June 15th, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
  • End of life issues: Last but not least, how can your congregation help people to think deeply, meaningfully, and faithfully about death and dying? There are the practical issues of preparing a will and a POLST and planning one’s funeral. But how can we help people undertake a life review? How can we facilitate the conversations about what it means to be mortal, and what we value as we near our life’s end? Go Wish is a resource that can help clergy, seniors, and families to have these kinds of discussions.


God has given us a wealth of wisdom and talent in the form of our older members. Let’s recognize their gifts, support their ministries, and rejoice in their presence. They’re a feature, not a bug.



The Reverend Laura Darling is the Director of Spiritual Care of Episcopal Senior Communities, a non-profit organization that provides housing and services to seniors throughout Northern California.


image: the Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt


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The Rev. Canon Gigi Conner

While I agree with much of what the writer has to say – I findin a way that it sounds like one of ‘those people’ views on a particular group of people. I am a retired clergy – working part-time (no there is no such thing) with a congregation that is 99.9% over the age of 60. We do have three younger families but for the most part everything – especially outreach to the those who live isolate lives (not older people mind you, but young girls and boys who live in foster group homes). These people would never describe themselves as ‘senior’ – ‘golden years’ – or ‘aged’. They travel – play tennis – go boating – look out for each other – keep the parish grounds clean – fix things that break down – well – all the stuff that we hope volunteers in church will do. Most people do not consider themselves of any particular age – rather whatever age their minds and hearts tell them. I am approaching 72 but it is an unreal age to me. I recently attended a birthday celebration for a 90 year old whose favorite thing to do is to deliver meals on wheels. We’re just people – of a variety of cultures – colors – ages – and gender orientations – like the rest of the world. Yes – sometimes we need help – just like anyone else. But we are not ‘old’ – or ‘seniors’ – we’re people.


I agree… they/we’re just people. And I don’t care how ‘wise’ they are either. [God gives wisdom, not the calendar.]

I’ve decided to stop describing people as… ‘Senior’, or ‘Older person’, or ‘about My age’, etc. It takes up too much time.

I have 5 friends in their 90’s, totally normal, fun, active people, I have a dozen friends in their 80’s… oops –there I go again!

I do have a little pet peeve… when people call me a ‘baby’ in comparison to their age. [I do take some pride in aging. ]

The Rev. Paul Gilbert

I’ve found that older people are young people wearing older clothes. As a priest of 72 now, I’m concerned that aging seniors are seen as problems not resources. Not true. Their wisdom is irreplaceable. At Grace Church in Charleston, SC we developed a four fold seniors ministry. Clergy visitation, Eucharistic Ministers, Care Giver support lunches and Savvy Seniors activities. It really worked. Anyone wants more info I’d be glad to respond.

Daniel Black

I am a 63 year old man who was just babtised two weeks ago. Yes I guess you could say I am a senior but my heart wants to burst with the joy of having found in the Episcopal Church a place where I truly feel God’s love. I won’t go into the whys but I still feel like weeping when I reflect on the matters of grace and redemption as I feel so unworthy of receiving them. Every Sunday I come away from the service feeling refreshed. Please do not discount those of us who are no longer twenty. We may not have all the strength of youth but we still thirst for knowledge of our Lord and how we may serve him. I have so many questions regarding our faith and the Bible and admit how great my ignorance is but I know that in the Episcopal Church, such as St. Mark’s here in Durango, Colorado, I will gain that knowledge and have the support of this congergation in my personal journey of trying to follow the teachings of Christ and trying to follow the example he set.


Daniel, thank you so much for sharing.

I loved hearing about your new found faith. How exciting! May God show you all the things He has for you. Angels are singing because of you.

“The Joy of the LORD is our strength”, nehemiah 8:10.

Keith Patterson

Amen, Mr. Black, amen!

Keith Patterson

Thank you for this! I am working with my lay pastoral visitors to pay more attention to the elders in our congregation as well as those in retirement communities. Thank you for reminding me that the elders are likely to stay 20-25 years. Keith+ BCC

Kevin McGrane

You remind me of the book “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50” by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. As a society, we seldom think about the notion that we will have a third chapter in our lives, let alone what we intend on doing with it. I believe that part of the “solution” is that the 60+ crowd (which includes me) can reach out and take charge of their own third chapter. If we do, others will sit up and take notice. 😀 Thank you for your essay!

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