The second element that informs ministry to older adults is related to the mind. Too often when the terms mental and older adults are paired, thoughts quickly move to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Even for those who fall prey to dementia in their late 80s and 90s—and half of this group will maintain their mental faculties—there are still years of retirement to deal with, savor, and enjoy. 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 love ones—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 in that age group are married. Women continue to be more likely to outlive their male spouses as they age.
Along with this lost is another reality that feeds feelings of loneliness. In a major study of women over age 65, Karen Scheib, in Challenging Invisibility (Chalice Press, 2004) asked women how their congregations perceived them. They said they were invisible.
Sheib proposes three practices for the care of older women that are also applicable to all older adults. She notes that the practices are “grounded in a vision of the church as a community of gracious inclusion,” (51) but extend into the general community as well.
1. Through narrative practices of care, people can find a sense of self and view their place in the world through the stories they tell about themselves and the world.
2. Practices of tending relationships and caring for communities nurture the interpersonal, family, and communal connections that form mature adults’ lives. Tending relationships includes both pastoral counseling and support provided when loss and grief occur. One way to provide this kind of care is support groups for women and others. Events with entertainment or a light program does not meet the deeper needs of some mature adults, who long for more in-depth content. Many older adults also prefer intergenerational activities that stretch them psychically and mentally.
3. Practices of prophetic witness challenge cultural attitudes and policies that are oppressive generally to all older adults and specifically to older women. Congregations can advocate for issues of economic security, caregiving, and abuse. (50-56)
Jane Sigloh’s reflections about the second half of life in Like Trees Walking (Cowley Publications, 2007) suggests that loneliness can be a positive experience that leads people to fulfillment. “A place where, in the ultimate depths of each individual soul, we can meet God. And where we can hear the voice of God, the way Elijah did, in the sound of sheer silence.” (104)
Churches can provide the space and the permission for mature adults to create “gardens of solitude.” Being surrounded by people and involved in multiple activities may pull someone momentarily from their loneliness.
Solitude for some does not always occur in the absence of activity. But we can learn together how to protect the experience of loneliness, which allows people to “feel the thirst of the desert.”
“There’s really no such thing as ‘privacy’ in solitude, because we have generations of friends and neighbors and brothers and sisters and cousins and in-laws with us—united through Christ, one to the other. And the bond is so tight—even with those who are strangers—that we can’t let go of them even when we climb up various ladders to find our solitude. So how can we be lonely?” (104)
Research into family systems with older members goes against societal beliefs about relationships between mature adults and other family members. While generations are less likely to live under one roof, older adults report close relationships with children and grandchildren, who often live within driving distance.
Churches can provide settings to help generations spend time together as families. Vacation Bible Schools, which commonly last a week, 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 schedule weekend retreats, which welcome extended family members into the church community. Other intergenerational activities, such as mission and outreach opportunities, embrace family members of all ages.
Pew Research Center studies show that people over 75 are becoming more tech savvy than ever before. Those that use the internet are very likely to communicate by emails and use it for search functions.
More and more people in this age group are also using some format of social media and have purchased smart phones. Often they are frustrated with the lack of detailed instructions about using new software and their own fears of “breaking” an application or losing their data.
As churches turn more and more to digital ministry and online communication, they could assist older members in using new technology for faith formation and for general communications. Boomers will soon be moving into the over-75 age group, and they will be bringing their interests and skills with them.
Statistics show that more and more older people are purchasing and using smart phones and different forms of tablets. One of the features of both these technologies is accessibility to software applications, apps, for a wide range of functions.
Millennials, who create most of the available apps, assume users share their trial-and-error method of learning the usage of new tools. Older people, especially those over 75, prefer written guidelines or one-on-one instruction.
Pairing Millennials in churches with older people for “App Sundays,” is one way to bridge the knowledge gap between generations, with younger people listening to needs, suggesting appropriate apps, and teaching their use, and older people sharing their related experiences and humor.
A learning and teaching atmosphere is conducive to building relationships that go far beyond random apps. Requirements for this kind of gathering include wireless internet availability, younger people (including adolescents) willing to be teachers, and older people with open minds.
Many organizations provide online spiritual and worship resources. Using them is not difficult; finding them may harder for some older people. Help in bookmarking resources can open up a new way of thinking about God. 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. Those using tablets or computers can enlarge the typeface of written material as needed; the volume of audio portions is also at the control of the user.
A wider use of electronic tablets across all age groups has particular applicability to older people, who often find smart phone keyboards difficult to use. The same people tapped as “App Sunday” teachers could assist mature adults in selecting a tablet and service provider that meets their needs. While the many options for devices provide choice, they also add confusion, especially for those already uncertain about using new technology.
Because older people are also using social media to a greater extent, online communities can be formed that allow people to share their thoughts and activities. A Facebook page with limited accessibility would allow a group of older women, for example, to support each other, sharing joys and sorrows, and facing loneliness.
Content that is intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking is often missing in programs targeted to older people. While older adults certainly participate in general offerings for all adults, these are often available only at night or in 45-minute segments on Sunday mornings.
While lighter community-building functions are enjoyed by many, some would gravitate to events with more substance. Older adults interested in this kind of programming can provide the leadership to start and sustain it. In addition to denominational resources, content is available or no or low cost from sites such as the nonprofit TED Talks, which is devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short talks (18 minutes or less).
Several new Bible studies are also available to help group go beyond a basic discussion of passages. The Covenant Bible Study, which uses filmed segments of scholars who take a contemporary approach to ancient texts. They are joined by the segment hosts: one a Presbyterian pastor and the other a United Methodist pastor. The format provides a new way to think about biblical texts, using a new lens for seeing how the texts interact across the millennia.
Caregivers of older people, especially elders with dementia, tell us that memories can still provide feelings of safety and contentment. Unlocking those memories from brains with twisted neurons is possible, requiring only a few simple prompts. A story that takes a person back to childhood often brings a smile; occasionally the older person picks up the strands of the story and retells it in slightly new way.
At a recent seminar on aging, we explored the making of personal memory boxes that could be used to help people recall favorite memories, whether they experience memory impairment or not. One participant noted, with excitement, that the preparation of a memory box gave her a positive task to complete now that could give her control over her thoughts in the future.
Providing a safe place where people can face and name their fears, especially for those over 75 who may be reluctant to do so, is an important ministry of the church.
There are several ways to help people begin the creation of their own memory boxes or to gather materials for a friend, spouse or family members who can no longer do so themselves. While the product is focused on an individual, the process of gathering words, images, music, art and photos is communal. Sharing the components of a memory box during the gathering process gives people the opportunity to explore their past and name the ways God has worked in their lives.
Memory boxes can be explored through a series of gatherings at a church or other setting, which can be scheduled over several weeks or in a retreat setting. People who might be reluctant to share an intimate story about God’s presence in their lives are more open to talking about music that touches their hearts and their memories of a story or family photograph. Moving from the comfort of a fond memory to finding God in that memory might be easier for some.
Another way to discover how God has acted in individual lives is through the crafting of spiritual autobiographies, which focus on the way people, events and experiences have formed him or shaped the course of his life.
Through the writing of spiritual biographies people begin to identify tangible objects that reflect their deepest memories. 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.
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum)
For complete copy of the special issue of the Lifelong Faith journal on adult faith formation, click here. The next post about older adults will look at issues affecting the spirit.