The third element that informs ministry to older adults is related to the spirit. Spiritual wholeness can be elusive, especially among those who have resisted doubt and uncertainty in their faith. Its importance can be overlooked or shoved aside in the busy-ness of everyday life.
Those over 75, comfortable with being part of the Builder Generation, may find it difficult to move beyond a faith defined only by community mores. Beliefs forged and strengthened during times of doubt are more difficult to embrace. Ministries that help mature adults fashion their faith include holy listening, mentorships, knowing God, and facing death—both their own and those they love.
Leaders of a women’s retreat recently explored the need for “holy listeners,” people who could help participants deal with personal issues and concerns raised during the retreat.
As the planners wrestled with who should be invited to this ministry and how it would look in a retreat setting, they decided some training was needed. They used these guidelines to structure the tasks of holy listeners:
1. There must be absolute confidentiality unless a person shares a suicidal or similar thought. That rarely happens, but if it does, a clergy person is a good resource in this situation.
2. Listeners are not therapists. Questions should only clarify or help the person hear what they are saying. Listeners might respond by saying: “I heard you say. . . . Is that how you are feeling?” or “Tell me more about that.”
3. Listeners should refrain from offering advice. In the best situation a person discovers within herself the solution to an issue or problem. If that doesn’t happen, perhaps the person needs to live in the situation a while longer.
4. Don’t be afraid of silence. You don’t need to fill the space with words. Sometimes the Holy Spirit needs silence to do her work.
5. Set a time limit and stick to it. There are always exceptions to every rule, but going over your time limit might be an indication that a person needs more than a listener.
6. Ask the clergy for a list of counselors or therapists in your area that you could refer people to. This takes a burden from listeners if a situation goes beyond their comfort zone. They can offer the list and gracefully back out.
Retreat planners soon realized that their work around holy listeners could move beyond a retreat format. Allowing people an opportunity to explore their own lives and situations could be helpful during Lent, for example.
As people in congregations age, there is an increasing need for those who can provide the grace of listening. “Explaining ourselves,” says James Thorson (Perspectives on Spiritual Well-Being and Aging, 2000, xvi), “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.
The concept of the life review is a process of rationalization in which people persuade themselves that they’ve led pretty good lives. Thorson tells his students who are in listening roles that they 1. Don’t have to correct any historical misinterpretations that they catch, and 2. Have the power to give absolution. (xvi)
“But I assure them that people who are hung up on a problem or guilty about past actions just might benefit from absolution, from a listener telling them, ‘I can see how it was perfectly natural for you to feel or act that way.’”
The way holy listening is provided as a ministry in a specific congregation will be based on its unique context. Initially the ministry may be a team of people who visit church members who live in retirement communities or nursing homes. People who offer a listening ministry usually report that they receive the same grace that they grant.
In Parish Ministry for Maturing Adults (Twenty-Third Publications, 2007), Richard P. Johnson speaks directly to the need for churches to be more than a feel-good place for elders to gather. He calls for church leadership to be more active, more assertive, and more focused on ministering to older parishioners.
“A new vision of this ministry,” he says, “will include an advancing appreciation for this later time of life as having immense spiritual purpose: that [it] is specially designed by God to bring people ever close to both God and their true selves.” Johnson created a model for providing spiritual mentoring that recognizes a range of needs and desires.
His model addresses social issues of peace and justice, the interaction of care and compassion, and the spiritual issues of prayer, good will, wholeness and compassion. It could be used in tandem with an aging in place initiative that pairs younger and older adults.
Too often churches assume older adults can take care of their spiritual lives themselves without any help from the church community. Johnson explores the creation of a mentor program that pairs people in their 60s, the young-old, with people over 85, the old-old.
In Parish Ministry, he outlines a series of mini courses to teach basic skills and foster compassionate attitudes for understanding and working with older adults. An important part of his paradigm is holy listening. In the sharing of stories and the act of listening, both people in a mentor relationship can understand God in new ways.
Thorson argues that spiritual well-being is found among older people who share themselves. In some ways, he says, it exemplifies grace, although grace is a gift freely given and undeserved.
Spiritual well-being is like beauty: we know it when we see it, but it’s difficult to describe. Similar to beauty, people see spirituality in different places and in different ways. Spiritual well-being, he adds, is something that we can work on and develop. (Thorson, xvii) Encouraging older people to share themselves might be a way churches not only increase spiritual well-being, but also open lives to grace.
Too much time and energy is spent crafting language to describe spiritual well-being when the definition is fairly easy: “Spiritual well-being is being on friendly terms with God.” (Thorson, xvii) That means spending time with God, in silence, through conversation, and in prayer.
A number of older people accustomed to prayer books or more formal prayers during worship find it difficult to be in conversation with God. They sometimes revert to language of the King James Version of the Bible, which makes conversation stilted and unnatural, or they simply feel inadequate to address God in more familiar language.
Short courses on different ways to pray and other spiritual practices could be offered at retirement residences, at church gatherings, and in homes. Courses can also be targeted to people of all ages as intergenerational programming.
For over 40 years researchers at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago have interviewed Americans through the General Social Survey to detect trends, make comparisons among groups, and see how people change over time. They have discovered that older people in general are happier than younger adults. While older people experience significant losses, they report less anxiety and difficulties with financial and interpersonal problems.
General Social Survey data also indicate that advanced age was positively correlated to passive positive emotions, but negatively correlated with active emotions. On the other side of the equation, younger adults have higher levels of anger and anxiety and are more likely to have financial worries, troubled emotional relationships, and work-related stresses.
Elders in the church have much to offer, especially to younger adults who could profit from the serenity and calm that is sometimes more evident in older people’s lives. Churches might explore prayer and silence with an intentional pairing of younger and older adults. Younger adults might suggest walking a labyrinth or taking a prayer hike in a park to spur more active emotions. Older adults might counter with being present in motionless silence. A mixture of active and passive activities would benefit young and old alike. Both could learn how to be “on friendly terms with God.”
In a recent email message, Milton Crum, former professor and writer at Virginia Theological Seminary, talked about facing his own death after learning about the death of an old friend.
“When Käthe and I lived in West Virginia, Dora and Ralph were good friends. Ralph died in a car accident when he was about 80, still active and in good health. When Dora became too old to remain in her home, she moved into an old folks’ home. At first, she remained well and active enough to enjoy living, but decline in vision and gait stole most of her joy. Following is my response to the announcement of Dora’s death:
Thank you for the announcement of your mother’s death. The tone and picture combined to catch the spirit of such a lovely person. Ever since I received it, I have tried to sort out my feelings. Envy keeps popping up.
When your father was killed, I felt sad for Ralph and Dora because they could have enjoyed more happy years together. I felt sad when Dora told me that in a way she was glad that Ralph had been killed before he reached the old age she was experiencing because he would have been miserable. That meant she was finding old age miserable.
There comes a time when the party’s over, it’s not fun anymore, it’s time to go home. I’m at that point except for Käthe who is now very weak and receiving hospice care. The central question is what kind of dying process will precede going home. That’s why my envy. Dora has completed doing what I still must do.”
It is this “dying process” that most of us 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.
Sherwin Nuland in How We Die (Random House, 1995) suggested that there were two options for facing death: “One is to battle death using all the weapons of ‘high-tech biomedicine.’ The other option is conscious acquiescence to death’s power.” (10)
Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward (Jossey-Bass, 2011) agrees with Nuland that our churches, medical profession, and even families focus on surviving rather than thriving.
Survival is an easy trap to fall into, and an issue for both caregivers and elders to be intentional about. Since this topic is assiduously avoided by people of all ages, one option may be selected over another by health professionals or others outside family circles.
Churches can help individuals and families first to articulate the best options for them, 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 Nuland’s How We Die in small groups. A second step might be the preparation of living wills with the help of community social agencies or knowledgeable church members.
In describing the human condition, Paul said in the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 16-17:
“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 research shows that they are more likely to express contentment than younger, more active people in the prime of health. This older generation has much to share.
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 the wisdom of elders. This generation has much to teach the bubble of Baby Boomers on the cusp of entering this phase of life.
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 get a glimpse of the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits us all.
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum)
For complete copy of the special issue of the Lifelong Faith journal on adult faith formation, click here.