Q: I’ve heard the prediction that 25 percent of the North American population will be over 65 years old by the year 2040. If we add to this trend the fact that people are living longer and couples are having fewer children, this means the median age of our population continues to rise. What are the implications for congregations?
A: These figures should motivate us to look carefully at what our congregations are offering older adults. Currently, ministries to and with older adults tend to be focused almost exclusively on pastoral care, but demographers are now observing that there are several categories of older adult.
The first category consists of those who are active, healthy, and live independently. These people are vital participants in life and want to be engaged in something significant, something that is going to leave the world a better place. Right now few congregations offer anything that focuses on the needs and desires of this group.
In the second category are those individuals who are mobile and relatively healthy, but whose energy is waning. They no longer can handle the demands of caring for a home, so they live in condominiums or assisted living facilities. These are the people congregations ought to tap to educate their still active and energetic older members on how to age well.
In the third category are those who are no longer active, healthy, or mobile. They live in nursing homes or have full-time nursing care in their homes. These are the people who need congregational friends who come to see them on a regular basis. They also need much more pastoral care. Congregations need to find ways to bring them Holy Communion and have people pray with them.
The key mistake congregations make is to lump all three of these categories of older people together and try to provide a single program for all of them, or to expect them to participate in the regular program offerings of the congregation until they can no longer make it to church.
What Can Be Done
In terms of staffing, congregations should begin thinking now of employing not only children’s and youth workers, but also workers for older adults. Many baby boomers have already taken early retirement and many others are reaching retirement age. Often characterized as the “me” generation, boomers feel little loyalty to institutions that do not serve their needs well. If your congregation does not have a comprehensive ministry to and with older adults, this huge generation of people is going to join congregations that do have something of substance to offer them.
There are a number of areas to be considered in developing ministries for older members. These individuals often have a strong desire to make a positive impact on the future, so congregations need to consider ways to make opportunities available for them to serve others in a profound way.
Many older adults also want something of substance to wrestle with intellectually and spiritually. During their working years many did not have the time for educational programs. At this stage in their lives, however, they have the time to delve more deeply into scripture and spiritual issues. Regular church programs don’t usually provide the depth these people want, so congregations should begin to consider offering programs providing the deeper experience their older members seek.
Churches also need to recognize that aging typically is accompanied by loss—loss of one’s mobility, hearing, sight, old friends—and the need to begin life again after these losses. Many older people often look back on the past with regret, pain, or disappointment, and need help dealing with these issues so they can live more fully in the present. Surely the church can develop ministries that assist older adults in coming to terms with the past and dealing creatively with the future.
Opportunities for fellowship are an important component of ministry to older members, as is pastoral care. Many churches already do a good job with providing pastoral care for their older members, but perhaps such care can be provided in a way that attends to the needs of other older adults at the same time. For instance, 90 active older members of one Episcopal congregation adopted elderly members in need of pastoral care, visiting them once each week. This practice contributed not only to the individuals receiving the pastoral care, but also engaged the other older individuals in real ministry, adding great meaning to their lives.
The time is now for congregations to be thinking of shifting much more of their program and financial efforts toward older adults. A comprehensive program to and with older adults can be the growing edge of your congregation.
Rev. Roy M. Oswald is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute, specializing in pastoral care, the dynamics of parish leadership, and clergy transitions. He has authored and co-authored 16 books with Alban, including Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach (with Robert E. Friedrich, Jr., 1996) and Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry (1991). His most recent book is Beginning Ministry Together (with James and Ann Heath, 2003).