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 http://www.consumerfinance.gov/older-americans/. 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