Adding Life in Years
There are all kinds of people in this congregation," my hostess said as we entered the sanctuary. But what I saw from the rear was a sea of gray heads. She was correct, of course, in saying that everyone in the congregation was unique. But like most other mainline churches across the country, the average age of members at this congregation has been relentlessly rising for the past generation. "Ministry with the elderly" is what most of these churches are doing most of the time.
"Elderly" is not as old as it used to be. In their excellent book Enabling the Elderly: Religious Institutions within the Community Service System (1986), Sheldon Tobin, James Eliot and Susan Anderson-Ray note that 80 percent of people over 65 are "well-elderly" who live in the community without special supports or institutional conditions. "Aging in place," they are the bulwark of their communities and the backbone of their local congregations. We must be sensitive to the minority who need help, but not overlook the strength of the vast majority of elderly who provide the stability and continuity in most parishes.
In broad strokes, we can classify seniors' contributions in three categories. First there are active members who "do it all." As I have heard from so many over the years (and now experience myself), "I can still do everything I used to do--it just takes me a little longer." Having flexible schedules (but often limited resources), many retired members come alive with new involvement in education and the arts, spiritual awareness and family bonds, worldwide issues and specific local concerns.
These lively elderly frequently shatter stereotypes. What they lack in quick energy they contribute in staying power. What they may have missed in global experience they make up for with a juicy reservoir of personal stories about the details of life as it used to be. Far from being locked into repetitive old patterns, the wise old-timers know that anyone who says "we've always done it this way" has a poor memory for all the options history has on record.
Some seniors have a special gift for reaching teenagers unavailable to the intervening generation. One church enlisted its youth to repair the homes of elderly. Over refreshment breaks, the teens and the "neighborhood grandparents," as one young person called them, formed fast friendships. Through this unexpected alliance, the young and old swapped stories and talked about their views of the world. They agreed that the generation between them (parents of one group, children of the other) didn't really understand!
Unfortunately, the lively elderly decline with age and illness. This second, smaller group of elderly needs help--which is also a gift to us. Tobin, Ellor and Anderson-Ray eloquently describe the array of services that churches and their members can provide at low cost and amazingly high rewards for services rendered. These include legal and health services, in-house care, transportation and emergency assistance. One church started a ministry simply by helping to fill out insurance and Social Security forms; lively elderly did what they could for neighbors with failing eyesight. The relationships forged by this ministry proved strong and durable. When a crisis erupted--the county discontinued offering ambulance service--the church members raised their voices in strong and successful support for the needs of the elderly. Because a network of care already existed, the congregation could exercise its compassion on a larger scale.
There's a third group of elderly members whose gift touches far more lives than they will every know. They are everyday saints who enact their faith with such natural simplicity that they inspire others to live more fully and satisfying lives. In Practicing Our Faith (Dorothy Bass, ed., 1997), Amy Plantinga Pauw calls this "dying well." As these faithful children of God witness to life even as they face their last days, others are moved to expand their strength and celebrate the human and spiritual gifts they share. In this process, some aging members offer inspiration that far exceeds the details of their obituary. They make us all more than we are.
The lively elderly carry much of the ministry, the infirmed elderly challenge us to care, and the saints inspire us to stretch beyond ourselves. All three are found in every parish.