By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published November 3, 2016
I find seniors to be an interesting lot, even in the very definition of us.
It would be wrong to put everyone in the same basket, label us “seniors” and attempt to treat all senior age segments the same. You will find a great deal of difference between a newly retired 55-year-old baby boomer and an 80-year-old senior from the Silent Generation. We have different wants and needs.
Why is this important? As the number of seniors continues to multiply, the need to develop programs and create resources to better serve the evolving needs of seniors will also grow. The new programs and resources must be age- and needs-specific, to be effective. One size will not fit all age segments, especially when planning the ministries and services within our parishes.
To better understand seniors, we need to categorize seniors into segments that have similar characteristics and needs. The term senior is used to identify a particular type of adult, but there is little consensus or agreement on what a senior actually is.
Some organizations like AARP refer to those over 50 as seniors. Yet other groups say that 55, 60 or 62 is the true beginning of the senior years. And there are those in the government who consider the age of 65 or 67 to be the real age of a senior.
In fact, definitions are just as vague and confusing. For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary simply says that a senior is an elderly person, especially if that person is retired.
The U.S. census distinguishes four categories: olders (55-64), elders (65-74), aged (75-84) and very old (85 and older).
Another study I read broke seniors into four segments: youngest old (55-64), young old (65-74), older old (75-84) and oldest old (85+).
The Diocese of Trenton in New Jersey classifies seniors as boomers (55-72), builders (73-84) and elders (85-105).
In an attempt to simplify the classification, I offer the following breakdown as a means to categorize seniors into groups with relatively similar characteristics: young seniors (50-59), seniors (60-75) and elders (76+).
In my categories, age is approximate. The actual classification is more reliant on attitude, lifestyle and health. There are young acting and thinking seniors in all segments, and sometimes age alone is not a categorical indicator of a particular grouping. Any programs developed need to consider the generalized similarities and differences in order to better serve the needs of each segment.
Young seniors still on the go
A great many of the young seniors are active, independent, learning, growing psychologically, socially and spiritually, productive, and interested in a wide variety of activities. They exercise twice as much as previous generations. They continue to bike, hike, swim, sail and ski—and they play softball and basketball. They’ll move to the mountains, beaches, islands, college towns—where the physical and intellectual action is.
From a spiritual focus, some young seniors may have been too busy with family and career to pay much attention to their spiritual needs. Some will need a welcoming-home type environment provided by kind, loving, considerate fellow seniors. They bring a great amount of energy and enthusiasm to everything they do so the parish must do all it can to welcome them back.
Seniors still active, yet changing with age
These are the firmly entrenched seniors who have experienced life in retirement and are gradually accepting the challenges of aging. Approximately half of the senior segment will go back to work or continue to work full or part time to supplement their income or simply because they like the challenges and rewards of staying active. On the homefront, the seniors are adjusting to an empty nest as they strive to create or renew relationships with spouses and family.
The senior segment is probably the bedrock of the parish. They tend to be more active in ministries, attend Mass and receive the sacraments regularly and contribute usually more than their fair share to the financial support of the parish. Many of them are catechists who have the time and talent to help make a difference in the parish. They can become a primary resource for the pastor, but seniors as a group are tremendously underutilized.
From a spiritual perspective, the seniors need help in dealing with the onset of the aging process and the impact that aging has on senior spiritual formation.
Elders changing their lives in response to health, aging
Those in the 76-and-up age segment are engaged in the challenge of a changing lifestyle brought on by possible health and aging issues. The aging process may have taken away some mental or physical abilities, and perhaps some mobility. A spouse may have passed away. An elder may need to consider alternative housing, assisted living or transportation assistance.
From a spiritual perspective, elders will need compassionate care and companionship. Many face daily loneliness that may be compensated for by a closer bond with their religion. Their primary contribution could be their leadership and participation in community prayer.
In essence, the senior segment is not one group, but rather three, with each group characterized by the wants, needs, challenges, opportunities and capabilities of its members.
Yes, we seniors are an interesting lot. We share much in common but need to recognize our differences as well. Each senior age represents an ever-expanding opportunity for the church to better understand and personalize the faith formation programs for each of the segments of the senior population.
Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send Bill your thoughts on this and other topics, send an email to email@example.com.