“All who walk with them in this journey can glimpse the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits us all.”
Older Adults in Church
There is no shortage of books and articles on ministry with children, youth, or young adults. The reality for many churches, however, is that much of the life of the church – those sitting in the pews, or serving on altar guilds, or ushering, or pledging, or manning the food programs – involves people nearing 75, or older.
Ministering to Older Adults
One definition for spiritual well-being is: the affirmation of life in a relationship with God, self, community, and the environment that nurtures and celebrates wholeness (This comes from a 1977 interfaith coalition on aging.) The point is: we cannot separate our spiritual lives from the wholeness of life. We must consider body, mind and soul, weaving those disparate parts into a whole cloth.
Church programming for older adults should also reflect the needs and contexts of each congregation. Furthermore, activities should be created for “us” by “us,” – programs created solely by staff or well-meaning people for “them” are doomed to fail. The ministries suggested below reflect the development, generational and spiritual characteristics of the Builder Generation (born before 1945).
Physical changes include not only the body, but also how those changes affect volunteer activities, the places people live, and those who are caregivers. How can churches respond?
Celebrating Programs: Many mission and outreach initiatives began with the efforts of people who are now over 75. As these members have less energy and physical stamina, some church events may no longer be feasible. Instead of letting traditional events die a quick or lingering death, which results in resentment and hurt, congregations should celebrate – with more than just a line in a worship bulletin – the role the events played in the life of the church and the people who made them possible. The Builder Generation laid the foundation that allows the current congregation to change and grow.
Church Accessibility: Physical changes for older adults often turn sidewalks, entrances, and aisles into barriers. To test the accessibility of church buildings and grounds, enlist the youth group to conduct an accessibility survey. Not only will the congregation learn about their facilities, the youth will also gain a new understanding of older people. Try an aging simulation to help people understand the needs of older adults.
Too often when the terms ‘mental’ and ‘older adults’ are paired, thoughts quickly move to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But half of those in their late 80s and 90s will maintain their mental faculties. Nevertheless, adults over 75 have already begun to live with issues of loss in every facet of their lives.
A reality for people over 75 is the loss of spouses, friends and other family members. Women are especially hard hit: 64 percent of men over 75 are married, while only 18 percent of women are married. Along with this loss is another reality that feeds feelings of loneliness. In a major study of women over age 65, women were asked how their congregations perceived them. They said they were invisible. What can churches do?
Intergenerational Activities: Week-long Vacation Bible Schools are a good place for grandchildren who are spending time with grandparents. While children are involved in the program, grandparents can share their skills and talents as volunteers, doing tasks from storytelling to making creative snacks to teaching a craft. Many churches also design weekend retreats to include extended family members. Other intergenerational activities, such as mission and outreach opportunities, embrace family members of all ages.
Online Interaction: Older people prefer written guidelines or one-on-one instruction. Pairing Millennials with older people for “App Sundays,” is one way to bridge the knowledge gap between generations. Using online spiritual and worship resources is not difficult, but finding them may be challenging. Churches can help by simply bookmarking resources. The brothers at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, for example, provide online daily meditations, audio clips of prayers and chants, and seasonal reflections. With social media, people can form online communities to share their thoughts and activities. For example, a Facebook page with limited accessibility would allow a group of older women, to support each other, sharing joys and sorrows, and facing loneliness.
Memory Activities: Providing a safe place where people can face and name their fears about memory loss is an important ministry of the church. One way to do this is creating personal memory boxes to help people recall favorite memories, creating boxes through a series of gatherings, events, or during a retreat. The objects chosen not only have the power to evoke a pleasant memory, but also to reflect God’s presence in the events of a person’s life.
Those from the Builder Generation may find it difficult to move beyond a faith defined only by community mores. Ministries that help mature adults fashion their faith include holy listening, mentorships, knowing God, and facing death.
Holy Listening: As congregations age, there is an increasing need for those who can provide the grace of listening. “Explaining ourselves,” says J.A. Thorson “and finding that we are pretty good people after all is like forgiveness of sin; acceptance as we are—warts and all—is what we strive for and is what I think gives meaning to life.” He believes that just sitting still to listen to older people talk about their lives is grace (Thorson, Spiritual Well-being of the Elderly, xvi). People who offer a listening ministry often report that they receive the same grace that they grant.
Spiritual Tools: Short courses on different ways to pray and other spiritual practices could be offered at retirement residences, at church gatherings, and in homes. Churches might explore prayer and silence with an intentional pairing of younger and older adults. A mixture of active and passive activities would benefit young and old alike.
Facing Death: Older people often say that it is the “dying process” that they fear, even though death itself may be a friend. Most people live with the hope that they will remain active to the very end, and then die quietly in their sleep. Regretfully, this is not the end most will experience. Churches can help individuals and families first to articulate the options they prefer, and secondly to prepare living wills and other documentation to make their wishes known and legally binding. A beginning point might be reading and discussing Sherwin Nuland’s book, How We Die.
In describing the human condition, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. . . So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”
Many people over 75 have lived these words, through the losses they have faced, through illness and disease, and in the uncertainties of simple survival. And yet many are more likely to express contentment than younger, more active people in the prime of health.
Perhaps by spending more time with older people in our churches and personal lives, listening to their stories, or just being in their presence, we can benefit from their wisdom. At the same time while the “outer nature is wasting away” for many older adults, their inner nature is being renewed daily. All who walk with them in this journey can glimpse the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits us all.
Dorothy Linthicum, a VTS instructor and program coordinator for the Center for the Ministry of Teaching (CMT), has studied and taught courses and workshops about older adult spirituality and ministry at the seminary, conferences, and dioceses.
This article is a condensed version of Dorothy’s article from the Winter 2016 Episcopal Teacher.