By CAROL ZIMMERMANN, CNS | Published May 27, 2004
Many parishes throughout the United States have senior groups whose members get together for prayer, social activities, lectures or travel.
And yet as this segment of the population is growing at a rapid pace, these groups alone can’t possibly tap into the varied talents nor serve the needs of seniors, according to some who work with the aged.
“All faith traditions are not preparing themselves for the wave of boomers and seniors who are going to be living longer,” said Bill Leon, director of the ministry on aging for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, adding that churches will regret their lack of preparation a few years from now.
Statistics from the National Council on Aging show that Americans age 65 or older now make up 12.4 percent of the population. The Census Bureau projects that the 65-and-older population will be 39.7 million in 2010, 53.7 million in 2020 and 70.3 million in 2030, or 20 percent of th1e population.
The first step in both helping seniors and in allowing them to contribute at the parish level is to seek them out, experts say.
“Seniors might not be the most visible in your parish,” said Kathy Bingham, director of the aging ministry for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. She said she is always reminding people that parishes are “not just families with kids in religious education.”
Often, older parishioners do not attend evening functions at the parish, but that’s not to say they aren’t involved or do not want to be, she said.
Edward Neteland, executive director of The Christian Association of Senior Adult Ministries in Laguna Niguel, Calif., said he advises church groups to survey their members in order to tap particularly into the talents and time availability of senior members. For example, he said some churches pair up older women with young single mothers, giving the older women a chance to share from their years of experience or even provide some practical help.
Surveys also can point to church members, young and old, who might be able to address a group of seniors on legal or health care issues, he added.
Bingham noted that many older parishioners want to share their time and talent, because “they have a lot to offer in terms of wisdom.”
To tap into this talent, church leaders need to do more than just urge older members to stuff bulletins, said Leon. He said older parishioners can particularly play a crucial role at parishes as the number of priests and paid staff drop, adding that if parishes do not ask for seniors’ help, many of them will volunteer elsewhere.
Leon also warned against seeing all older parishioners as one large group of adults aged 55-95. To simply have a 50-plus parish group might not answer or tap into many parishioners’ needs, he said, advising that parishes divide their older adult ministry into subgroups that would more specifically answer the specific needs of its members.
Parishes also should be more sensitive to including older members, he noted. For example, if a parish group invites seniors to a function, it should make sure it is offered at a time when seniors can participate and the location should be accessible.
Neteland said he also advises church leaders to become more aware of issues seniors face in order to help them with practical needs.
Bingham’s office does advocacy work on the issue of affordable housing. “With insurance costs skyrocketing,” she said, “many of the elderly can’t afford the homes they live in or new homes.”
Another key factor for seniors is their spirituality. More people, Leon said, are recognizing the link between spirituality and a healthy lifestyle.
This could mean linking homebound seniors with prayer ministries or providing creative ways to study the Bible for some of the younger seniors.
Bingham sees spirituality as something that can link many generations. For example, parishes in the Galveston-Houston Diocese have begun providing formats for people of all ages to talk about their faith and how it might be passed on to the next generation.
Programs like this make a difference, said Neteland, though acknowledging that they take some thought and planning.
Church groups need to “go beyond potlucks and travel,” for seniors, he said, adding that there needs to be some “catalytic activity to stir this up.”