Last year marked the 50th anniversary of significant civil rights legislation in this country: Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act (yes, these are about civil rights). 2015 was also the 80th anniversary of Social Security. To help commemorate these milestones, events were held around the country following a pattern of dialogue at the mark of the passage of each decade since 1965. These dialogues culminated in the July 2015 White House Conference on Aging. In his remarks to those gathered at the conference, President Obama reminded those gathered that “Together we declared that every citizen of this country deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. That choice saved millions upon millions of our people from poverty, allowed them to live longer and better lives.” The final report from these conversations and research was released last month.
Key themes emerged from the Conference’s listening sessions—key themes which I suggest the church would be wise in considering as the basis for our own conversations about aging and ministry with those in their later years.
The first common theme is the process of acknowledging that we are already in the midst of a dramatic demographic transformation. This means that we need to be careful not to panic when we look at our congregational profiles and see higher proportions of our members are over the age of 65. For instance, already in the state of Ohio, if every person over the age of 65 were to take a seat in our public school system, we would be short 300,000 desks. Subsequently, it would be reasonable to expect that similar demographics would be occurring in our churches. One congregation, in recognizing a demographic shift in their own community, has repurposed significant space in their building to house a community health clinic, forging a much needed partnership for area low income families. The demographic shift can open up new possibilities for ministry.
Another theme is around the need to support caregivers. The report includes the fact that “the majority of assistance for older Americans is generally provided at home by informal caregivers, especially family and friends” (p. 7). I am sure that you can immediately bring to mind the name of someone who is the lifeline, the primary support person for a family member or neighbor. A member of my home church recently shared frustration that the waiting lists for day care programs for Alzheimer patients are months or years long in our community. She jokingly wondered if somehow we could start such a program for her husband whose progression with the disease has escalated to a tiresome degree for her to handle on her own. The reality is that a child care center already in place needs a significant part of our church’s available space. And even if there were space, the time to get it up and going to help her spouse would take far too long to organize to help her spouse and would not alleviate the fatigue I heard in her voice now. Another question that perhaps we need to ask her is “How can we support you, today?” We could perhaps find some ways to help her with the day to day tedium and increase visits with her at their home to help her from being swallowed by the isolation as it is increasingly difficult to take her husband out of their home into public spaces. Other congregations perhaps might have the room and desire to research opening a day center for those with memory impairments.
The third theme has to do with collaboration. We need to find ways to understand that transportation, housing, health care and other supports are all connected. The final report articulates, “Communities are challenging all sectors to re-imagine aging and consider how best to serve and benefit from this growing population” (p. 31). I would like to think that we keep a holistic view of all our members as the basis for our ministry. However, we also are challenged by segregating people’s needs and we choose to ignore some needs as not being a part of the mission of the church. For example, the possibility of our local congregation having a van to help transport aging members to church on Sundays or even to appointments during the week may not be a fiscal possibility, but what about the personal cars that others drive? Can we begin to see how tending to transportation needs is important to their mental, physical and spiritual health as well? Could this be a volunteer ministry that we could help to organize?
And finally, the last common theme is new to these conversations about aging in America. The last theme has to do with technology. You may wonder how technology related to aging affects the church. Consider the question of whether or not people on motorized “scooters” or electric wheelchairs have a place to park their “technology” so the owner can participate in worship, just to name one issue that I noted last week while attending a church funeral. Or consider how many older adults today are computer literate because they connect with children and grand-children via skype and Facebook and email. How could the church use these same technologies to connect with their own aging members? Or how could the church help to activate ministries of younger generations who could teach the older members to use these technologies as they desire to find new ways to be connected with the world at large?
In the final words from the report’s executive summary, “Everyone agreed that it is time to shift the conversation about aging from one that assumes the coming age wave will overwhelm us, to one that recognized that it can help lift everyone by tapping the power of experience to improve our families, our communities and our society. Contributing to our society and communities in a meaningful way will be the new definition of aging in America as we go forward” (p. 8). I would add “our churches” to that list between “families, our communities, and our society”.
One of the key components to the Final Report from the White House Conference on Aging is that it is the culmination of dialogue across the country. Participating in the dialogue were policy makers and care givers, persons experiencing the challenges and opportunities of aging right now and those who are leaders in the field of aging services. And as with large dialogues, that included the sharing of existing research and observations but also included pausing to listen to the needs of those already in the age demographic.
Dialogues include answers, but more importantly, they are fueled by questions. What are the questions your congregation could be asking the older generations of members and neighbors with whom you are in community? What does this population have to contribute to the life of your congregation? What are the ways that the older members can improve and deepen our community’s experience of the sacred? How is it that the still speaking God is communicating through the experience and wisdom of the elders in our midst?
May the conversations from 2015 help to fuel your dialogue in this New Year around the opportunities and challenges of aging in America and in our churches.
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.