Meeting the Needs of an Aging Congregation

Published on: May 18, 2015

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Today our life expectancy is about 80 years old. Most of the gains in our life expectancy since 1935 are due to life-extending medications and medical procedures that help us live longer, but all too often that life is in a fragile condition. There are also fewer children per capita being born today. In fact, in just a few years it is projected there will be as many seniors as there are children in the USA. This is, in all probability, a reason why we have more seniors in our Unity communities today and may even explain some of the decline in youth turnout. The reality is that there are more seniors living today than ever before in history.

Caring for Our People

During my training as a Unity minister, we never really talked much about the senior population in our spiritual communities or about their needs. Somehow we just assumed they were there supporting the church. So we put much of our attention and resources on the youth or on trying to get young families into the community. Everyone wants more youth and young families in attendance, because it is a sign the ministry is healthy and vibrant. It also helps us to feel that our future is bright.

I would like to suggest that when we focus just on our youth, we then neglect focus on helping our seniors deal with the challenges of aging and the quality of their lives. I know I personally thought the elders knew what they were doing and what they needed. I thought they would just organize something for themselves if it was considered necessary.

As senior minister in my previous ministry, I recognized that we had a lot of seniors as part of the congregation. They would show up on Sundays, faithfully attending, until they could no longer get to church. After that, they would just disappear into their world of isolation because they could no longer drive, or they may have ended up in a care facility without letting us know. Sometimes I would notice that an elderly person had not been attending recently and I would try to find out what happened.

What was most frustrating is that I didn’t know what to do for them except pray. What actions could I take? How could I put feet under my prayers?

As ministers and spiritual leaders, we are becoming compelled to address this part of our ministry with the compassion and understanding that is necessary to serve our elders. Instead of being concerned when we look out and see more silver-haired members listening to our Sunday lessons, why not embrace the idea of having highly effective and competent programs for this population as an important part of our ministries?

The Needs of Our Senior Population

I became so focused on working with elders several years ago that I left my spiritual community and went to work with a company that deals with the care needs of seniors. In this position, I find housing and care for frail elders in the greater Seattle, Washington, area. In my work, I have learned a great deal about what can be done to help this population. By and large, elders who are frail are reluctant to ask for help, and in many cases are simply afraid to do so for fear of losing their independence as a result.

I would caution anyone against assuming they know enough about the issues and nuances of working with our elder population unless they are specifically trained to work with the elderly. Frail elders have very specific needs, and there are very clear protocols that need to be in place to serve them. Much like we do background checks on people working with our children, we want to be diligent in screening those who are tasked with interactions with our vulnerable elders.

For example, I always try to include a family member in my interactions with an elder, especially when I judge them to be frail and vulnerable. In the absence of that, I always report back to the family after any meeting. If a fragile elder doesn’t want me to contact a family member or they have no family, then I am sure to have someone else involved in the process with them. We may think that this is unnecessary, and if our conversation were just a casual one, it would be. But if we are there to help them, we may be the only one who remembers what we talked about unless we have a third party involved in some way.

I believe it is time for us to focus on our senior population with programs that support them in their circumstances. This could be a group of people from the congregation that would take responsibility for attending to those seniors that have a need.

This group could be the eyes and ears of the minister so that he or she would know what was happening in the seniors’ lives. They would be trained and exposed to some of the specific issues in the lives of our aging population, which is an invaluable opportunity for them personally. This training could be very helpful in numerous ways, particularly when they face the aging needs of their own parents or loved ones.

The intention of the ministry could be to have a team of trained volunteers that identify and reach out to people age 65 and up to determine who needs help and where they can be supportive. Likely most of the people who may need help are 80 or above, but there are plenty of seniors in their 70s who are frail and in need of assistance.

Perhaps a senior needs something as simple as grab bars in the bathroom for safety, or a ride to church each Sunday or to a weeknight class or event. Maybe they are having trouble keeping up their home and need some help with repairs and upkeep, or someone to listen to them as they sort through their housing options. Perhaps they are lonely and isolated and unable to get to their doctor appointments, or are down or depressed, alone and feeling forgotten.

Being a Helpful, Listening Presence

Having someone to turn to who knows how to listen, knows about their issues, and can not only pray with them but lend a hand to lighten their burden can be life affirming. If they don’t have the resources, then perhaps some volunteer help could make the difference for them. If they do have the resources, a little help in finding the right contractor or gardener or housekeeper is invaluable. In addition, just being able to talk about their spiritual life and daily challenges with someone who is safe and supportive is significant.

Supporting our elders’ spiritual journeys is more than just delivering an inspiring Sunday lesson each week. It requires more hands-on help than at any other time in history, because our elders are living longer and in greater numbers. These silver-haired ladies and gentlemen, who have often been the stalwarts of our spiritual communities, are now in need of not only our prayers, but also our heartfelt dedication and attention.

With twice as many seniors and half as many youth in our population, we must be willing to change how we operate when it comes to these aging congregants.

We must be willing to reallocate our resources in ways that serve our entire congregation, including the elder populace. After all, as stated earlier, the reality is that there are more seniors living today than ever before in history. Fortunately, many of them are attending our Unity communities; therefore, our task as Unity leaders becomes clear to find ways to support them in their golden years.

 

Editor Note: We thank Rev Sandy Diamond for assisting in the writing of this article.

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Steve Towles
Rev Stephen Towles has been a Unity minister for 30 years having served congregations in Sacramento, CA; Reno, NV; Seattle, WA; and Edgewood, WA. He is a Certified Senior Advisor and member of the Society of Certified Senior Advisors. He has helped over 600 seniors and their families.

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