Church Congregations and Aging Adults

Part 1 of 4:  The Invisible Aging Person

The church needs renewed consideration of the Eldest members. People too often become invisible once they are no longer able to get out, when they are too fragile to “contribute” to the growth or life of the church. I have witnessed a sad trend played out in congregations I have participated in and the work I have done with Elders both in the community and in Assisted Living Facilities.  Once a person becomes absent – through relocation to an institution, becoming home bound due to infirmity or because the church is not set up to accommodate special needs –  they become invisible.  Deacons may send a card on special days.  A church visitor may pop in for an hour once a month, but the Older member becomes exiled, wandering alone in the spiritual desert of their last years.

I belong to a small, aging congregation in a rural community. There has been discussion of late that if we don’t bring in younger families, the church may not have sufficient members to keep the doors open.  That’s a reality shared by many small churches, and the focus of revitalization strategies taught by leaders like Thom Rainer and Ken Priddy. It makes sense: We must find ways to invite people to come in – and stay – to keep the church alive.  The Great Commission calls us to make disciples and certainly we can’t do that if the doors are closed.

Historically, churches grew from the younger demographic upwards, not unlike societal institutions. Historically speaking (pre Baby Boomer cohort) the majority of our population were in their middle years, with a large base of youth and children at the base of the population pyramid, and retirees and Elders comprising the narrowing tip. Nursery care, preschool programs and Vacation Bible School drew families by attracting  children and their parents. That was an effective paradigm for growth as the Boomer Generation was created, well into the 90’s as they then had their own children. (This format worked for me. I was “unchurched” until a program drew my children in and then I followed. Nothing softens the heart of a parent more thoroughly than seeing their children glowing with joy and a sense of purpose; the innocence of “letting their light shine”).

The times, though, they are a’changing. The Boomers will be launching the last of their babies shortly.  The Generations X and Y and the Millennials will not likely reproduce in the numbers that the Boomers and their parents did. Church nurseries, I predict, will not host the numbers that were common 30 years ago.

I will close this installment with a story I was privy to. I began reflecting on this situation as our church discusses revitalization efforts and how we become more welcoming. It occurred to me to think through “to whom do we need to be welcoming?”  We need to not overlook our aged church members, who once disconnected from their Spiritual fellowship, can suffer in isolation.

Mae was a resident at an assisted living where I was employed as a nurse. She was in her early 80’s, and suffered short term memory loss.  Mae had been moved to the assisted living apartment because she could no longer safely care for herself at home, and her family thought the socialization of the community living facility would benefit her. Mae had a church visitor – once a month a young gentleman would “round” on about a half dozen residents who had once been church members. As far as I could see, that was her only church contact.  In chatting with her eldest child one day, I heard an intense anger towards the church and it’s members, as he felt that for the 40 years Mae had participated in all aspects of the life of her church, no one “saw” her anymore.  She had become invisible to the church family, save the dedicated volunteer who provided ministry in the local facilities for “former” church members. Mae was starving for conversation, for regular prayer, Bible Study, a friend, and the ritual of church services.  In the assisted living, she was spiritually starving. Her children also felt abandoned by the church family they had grown up with, and thought would continue to be a resource for them and their mother as her needs changed.

Our seniors become “the forgotten” and often decline visits because “they don’t want to be a bother”.  I’ll let you in on a secret.  They DO want to be a bother.  They want to be seen, noticed, cared about, included, even in their changing states.  They thirst for authentic connection, visits, prayer, hymns, gossip.

Questions to consider:

How many of your aged church members seem to have become invisible once they no longer attended services regularly? 

Is anyone designated in your church to notice an absence and follow up with a call to the parishioner or their family? 

Who in your church family is tasked with making sure members, unable to get out often, are visited frequently enough to nurture still growing relationships, rituals and spiritual succor?

* * * * * * *

I challenge church leaders to take an inventory of the people that have faded from view in the last year.

Where have they gone?

Who has reached out to them?

What training is offered for your volunteer visitors, if you have such a body, so that they are equipped to have meaningful visits to those who are home bound?

Does your church regularly engage with the families of their aging membership?

The Changing Image of Aging

GrannyContemplating issues facing the aging population on our planet (and therefore, facing us all) I became aware of the lack of positive role models for active aging and co-generational caring in families. In the US, where people over 60 are more than 30% of the population, only 2% of movie and television roles portray older adults, and then often in cameo/comedic roles.. What does this lack of role modeling mean for us? That we don’t have a strong cultural idea – coming out of the “nuclear family” post WWII era – regarding the needs of our Elders for meaningful relationships with younger adults and conversely, the need for all of us to “mind our elders.” Culturally, we lack a map for what healthy, positive co-generational sharing should look like, and how to live it out.

I cut my cultural teeth on the sitcoms of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I remember when American television broke the color barrier and when women quit vacuuming in high heels and pearls (Thanks be to God!). Seniors, however, continue to remain quite invisible.  Where is the show about life in the Assisted Living or retirement living that includes bicycling miles for an ice cream treat? British and Canadian television have done better integrating multiple generations in their storylines –  from “Doctor Who” to 81 year old Dame Judi Dench (who continues to model of an active and vibrant “granddame”), as Jean Pargetter-Hardcastle in the multi-generational family sitcom “As Time Goes By”. “Downton Abbey” gave us a 4-generation family (albeit cared for by paid staff), and the excellent aging (and maturing) of family members across a decade. Some other favorites portraying the retirement cohort would be “The Last of the Summer Wine” and “The Vicar of Dibley” which include positive, humorous and touching portrayals of people from different generations supporting and encouraging each other (sometimes into trouble). They are people we can relate to and imagine being in relationship with. (They also die – and their friends mourn).

Twenty years ago, the battle cry for assisting the most vulnerable in our communities was “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Then, as now, we hear little about how the needs of elders in our society will be addressed beyond the hot button topic of Medicare and Social Security “reform.” There are problems there that will need to be addressed creatively as the Boomers hit those roles. More pressing, and in the grasp of each of us right now is: How do we support the Elder community from the ground up?  When is the spotlight going to fall on Elders – not as dottering, cameo appearance comediennes or crazy/scary and unpredictable  – but addressing the need for accessible spiritual care and nurture, medical care, socialization, generational sharing and protection from those who would abuse or exploit?

The Art of Parentcare LLC will be offering training in 2016 for individuals, churches and other community groups to develop additional skills in assessing and creatively supporting the spiritual, physical and emotional care of aging adults and their families, and to aid in anticipating and meeting the changes that will come as the wave of Boomers hits the shore of their seventh decade and beyond. Private and group consulting services are also available.

Why We Need Eldercare Advocates

“All of a sudden, my parents are so old.  I don’t know how to help them!”.

I have heard this statement routinely in every position I have held providing support and advocacy to Elders. This sudden awareness of aging causes anguish to adult children, as they become acutely (and often unexpectedly) aware of the aging of their parents, and feel powerless to “help”.  Parents are not supposed to be fragile and needing assistance, parents are our backbone, our foundation, folks we should always be able to turn to.  You know… always there. “Grandparents are old.  My parents are NOT!”

The truth is, our parents age as gradually as we do, but if there is little contact from month to month or year to year, these changes can seem to come on abruptly and unexpectedly.  Indeed, there are critical (“sentinel”) events that rush the aging process – a fall with a fracture, a serious illness – and the consequences can be dire, the recovery long and debilitating. For the most part, though, we each “age”, every day.

Later life aging is divided into three primary categories (with new ones cropping up regularly as our society ages stronger and is living longer). Generally speaking, they are the “young-old”, from 60-75, the “old-old”, from 75-85, and then the “frail elderly”, 85 and above.  We have now added to that the “super centenarians”, those people exceeding 100 years of age. These definitions would be better applied to the progression of aging instead of attaching a year marker to them.  Many seniors remain active well into their 80’s –busy, vibrant, learning, creating, contributing adults in our families and culture.  They may remain “young old” far beyond their mid-70’s.

What we do witness is a progression from activity to a gradual slowing down; appetite and interests change, fatigue becomes more frequent, sleep patterns change.  Senses may become impaired, and with that, enjoyment in conversation or visual stimulation decreases. Mild to moderate joint pain makes mobility and comfort difficult, and the gait may become unsteady enough to require an assistive device (cane or walker).  It may become hard to attend church or social gatherings because it is difficult to see or hear.  Memory may become altered, and additional assistance is required in what are termed the Activities of Daily Living (ADLs).

When an out of town child comes for a visit, what has been a steady progression for the older adult and those around them suddenly appears as a crisis for the adult child. They may feel obligated to intervene on behalf of parents who seem to be failing before their eyes.  Such situations often result in chaos and upset.  I have known such family to uproot seniors and move them into assisted facilities, believing they were doing what was right and safe, yet having little understanding of the culture in such facilities,  or concerning themselves with the intense sense of loss one endures when they are uprooted from that which is familiar. I would suggest that unless one has a regular, on-going relationship with an aging adult, it is best NOT to jump in and make decisions for an aging family member, but instead to work on building a closer relationship with them, help them assess the need they have for assistance and figure out how to get it to them in their home. I have seen such painful moves imposed on Elders by well meaning – but disconnected – adult child who impose their fear and will on their parents.  We refer to these folks as “blow in, blow up, blow out” family members.  They aren’t really in a close relationship with the Elder, and so come from a place of fear and protection that is not always rightly placed.

As families endure the separation of miles and hours, it is more important than ever before that we make connections in their communities with reliable people to provide support and advocacy, and keep us in the loop, so to speak, as the needs of our aging parents change.

If you would like to be such an Eldercare Advocate,  The Art of Parentcare is now accepting applications for training for September of 2016.  Learn what it is to be a resource for Elders in your family, your church and your community.