By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published March 9, 2017
Consider the idea of a population explosion. The senior population in the U.S. is growing three times faster than the rest of the country. Seniors over age 65 now outnumber the entire population of Canada. Two-thirds of those who have lived to age 65 in the history of the world are alive today.
Our country is rapidly aging. Many social scientists believe the senior population explosion will produce the most significant social revolution in American history.
“It’s going to be of a significance that matches the dawn of the industrial age or the invention of the microchip,” said Ken Dychtwald, researcher and gerontologist.
Impact of the new senior explosion
Many of today’s seniors (regardless of age) are quite removed from the stereotypical senior citizen of yesterday. Their attitudes are different; their behavior is different. U.S. News & World Report noted, “What is important about this generation is its difference, not only in size, but in vitality and outlook.”
A recent study of this generation by the MacArthur Foundation found that rather than finding the elder years to be a time of despair and crisis, the new seniors are self-confident, in good health and personally productive. George Brim, director of the study, concluded, “The sense (older adults) all have is that this is the best place to be.”
Unfortunately, most churches continue to operate on traditional assumptions that seniors are quite content with a social-based ministry, replete with bingo, covered dish dinners and day trips. As a result, the church fails to recognize the spiritual needs of the fastest growing segment in the parish, namely the seniors who desire unique, tailored faith formation ministries. As the General Motors commercial proclaimed a few years back, “This ain’t your father’s Oldsmobile!” Likewise, the current senior explosion “ain’t” like anything the church has ever experienced.
The implications of the senior explosion have not yet reached the radar screens of most dioceses. I researched 178 dioceses in the U.S. and discovered that only six dioceses have a ministry devoted to the spiritual needs of seniors. Most dioceses support social-based senior ministries in the parishes, and some have elder care programs for the oldest of the senior population. However, very few dioceses have recognized the impact of the burgeoning senior population and the reality that seniors require their own unique faith formation ministry. The condition will only compound over the next 20 years as 76 million baby boomers enter their retirement years.
Challenge or opportunity?
In the past it was fairly easy to categorize seniors into one “older adult” category for Adult Faith Formation, but as life expectancy has increased (30 years in the past century) this country now has a senior population that spans 50 or more years (age 50 to over 100) with at least four unique segments: young seniors (50-60), middle seniors (60-70), older seniors (70-80) and elders (over 80). Each segment has unique characteristics and issues, both practical and spiritual.
It’s also important not to interpret age guidelines literally. There are a great many “young” seniors in each segment—a matter of attitude and personal feelings of one’s self. I have found that if a senior thinks he is old, he is old. If a senior thinks and acts like she is young, she will be eternally young.
The challenge imbedded in the senior explosion is the need to create new senior ministries that focus on senior issues and needs. The new ministries must address the unique requirements of each segment. I believe that our clergy and parish leaders will need to create new “adult formation” models that focus directly on seniors while maintaining the existing programs for younger adults.
The senior opportunity
The exciting opportunity that the senior explosion provides is a new and vital resource that can be organized around the experience and wisdom of the senior segment. The reality is that the seniors in the parish are the only segment that has the time, talent and treasure to help a parish address all of their operational and spiritual needs.
In a typical parish, the senior population represents a multidimensional resource for practically every need that a parish might have. There probably isn’t anything that needs doing in a parish that could not be covered by the experience base of senior parishioners.
The challenge is to unlock this great senior resource by actively recruiting and encouraging seniors to participate in more church ministries and activities. The seniors are ready, willing and able to take a more active role in their parishes but the first step must be taken by the church to recognize the senior segment in a new and different way and to create senior ministries that address the unique senior needs, both practical and spiritual.
What is the motivation for seniors?
The new seniors view retirement differently than prior generations. New seniors believe that retirement is not the end of a prior life but the beginning of a new one. This new life provides opportunities to do new things, gain new insights, go new places, support new causes and meet new people.
Seniors would rather serve than be served. The new breed of senior has discovered that in giving one gains far more than in receiving. New seniors want to pass on their experience and wisdom. Parish programs that allow participants to give time, effort, money and energy to meaningful causes will attract new senior volunteers.
When the church recognizes and addresses the needs of seniors, parishes will receive tenfold in return. Can you imagine what a typical parish might look like in the future? First, there will be a lot more gray hair in the pews. Second, there can be a new vitality from seniors as they become engaged in more meaningful ways to help their parishes achieve their spiritual and operational goals.
In summary, the senior population explosion is real. All aspects of society, including the church, must recognize and plan for the impact. If we fail to recognize and prepare for this social phenomenon, we will miss out on one of the greatest challenges and opportunities in the history of the world.
By the way, I am indebted to Charles Am of the Enrichment Journal for some of the material in this article and thank him for his research and commitment to senior ministry.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.