In the first post about ministry to adults 75 and older, we noted that our spiritual lives cannot be separated from the wholeness of life. At the same time, it is helpful to distinguish among ministry for the body, mind and soul, with the intent of weaving those disparate parts into a whole cloth.
The ensuing discussion will examine practices and approaches to ministry in the first area, which focuses on the physical part of life, with the understanding that each is only a part of the whole person. Physical changes include not only the body, but also how changes affect volunteer activities, the places people live, and those who are caregivers for spouses or others.
The Builder Generation has provided the leaders and workers that are still the backbone of many civic and religious organizations. This is due to their commitment, reliability, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good. As this generation moved out of the workforce and into retirement, their actions and beliefs often became visionary or idealist.
In churches and other religious organizations, many mission and outreach initiatives domestically and overseas began with the efforts of people who are now over 75. This group also provided the hospitality that made church communities so inviting, from luncheons for older members to receptions at funerals.
Many of those still actively involved in ministry projects are often weary and ready to move on to other pursuits. Younger generations, however, seem to have limited time and little interest in hosting receptions or continuing traditional events. This is a time for people of different age groups to clearly assess which activities should be continued and which are no longer feasible.
Instead of letting traditional events die a quick or lingering death, which results in resentment and hurt, congregations should celebrate the role the events played in the life of the church and the people that made them possible. The efforts of people over many years to create hospitality or to meet a community need deserve more than a line in a worship bulletin. The Builder Generation laid the foundation that allows the current congregation to change and grow.
Changes in the body are often seen and described as losses: a loss of hearing, a loss of vision, a loss of dexterity, among others. These changes often turn sidewalks, entrances, and aisles into barriers.
To test the accessibility of the buildings and grounds of a church, enlist the youth group to conduct a survey. Not only will the congregation learn about their facilities, the youth will also gain a new understanding of older people. Several groups have published simulations of aging; begin with one created by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University.
The loss of mobility can isolate people in their homes, especially if they no longer can drive and cannot navigate mass transit. As Internet use becomes more prevalent with older people and they move to broader bandwidths, software such as Skype can bring families and friends together.
Middle school youth at First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas, make monthly visits to older adults, according to Roberta Ingersoll. Members of the visitation ministry team drive youth in teams of three to visit older adult members of the congregation at home or local nursing homes. “The youth are given conversation starters and a devotional to offer during the visits,’ says Ingersoll.
“Skills are developed, faith is shared, and multiple relationships are built.” The youth take pictures of the visit, leaving at least one picture with the person visited and bringing another back for the group’s scrapbook. A group like the Kilgore youth could also help set up a Skype conversation among family members of an older adult. Grandparents could not only talk to their children and grandchildren, but also see them in real time.
Other churches designate work weekends where groups of all ages help older people rake leaves, clean gutters, and other chores. This kind of service recognizes the gifts that the Builder Generation has shared in their communities over the years.
Most older people want to stay where they are, preferring to grow old in their own homes, “aging in place.” Successful aging in place, however, demands that homes not only provide continued enjoyment and stimulation, but also support declining functional limitations.
Too often this decision gets made by default; people of all ages have an aversion to nursing homes and even well-planned retirement communities. Churches have an opportunity to partner with local and community agencies to help older people make more informed decisions about their future living arrangements.
Many homes, for example, do not have the architectural capacity to adjust to the needs of aging bodies. A team of architects and construction experts from the church and community could advise older residents about the feasibility of adding chair lifts to staircases, making bathrooms handicapped accessible and widening doorways.
Expert advice can be offered about other issues, such as transportation. Older residents need to consider not only their own mobility, but also transportation options for caregivers who may not have cars.
The pairing of people in their 50s and 60s who are beginning to think about future living arrangements with people in their 80s who are aging in place could be beneficial for everyone concerned. The Builders could help the Boomers with the realities of independent living arrangements, while the Boomers might be able to resolve some of the challenges the Builders had not anticipated. This kind of bond might result in a much deeper relationship over time.
Reaching out with support to caregivers should probably be a part of every church strategy for working with older people. In his first monograph, I’m Old, written when he was in his late 80s, Milton Crum argues that more time and effort is spent dealing with caregivers than old people themselves.
In reading Crum’s later work, I’m Frail, however, it becomes clear that he has assumed primary responsibility for the care of his wife, even while both are living in an assisted living facility. Many mature adults with health issues of their own assume caregiving responsibilities for a spouse, partner, or friend.
Most caregivers of all ages need more support than governmental agencies and care facilities offer. The loneliness of the task and its long hours are demanding enough to test anyone. Churches can support caregivers in the congregation through support groups and short-term palliative breaks.
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 mind.