Aging Together in Grace

Churches can offer a countercultural message about the gifts of older adults and walking with them through the challenges of aging.

Photo credit: Richard Woollett
Photo credit: Richard Woollett

The average American’s life expectancy at birth was 70 when The Beatles sang “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” Back then, people aged 65 or older made up less than 10 percent of the population.

Now more people are getting old, and older people are living longer. “The group of people 85 and older in our country is growing faster than the number we are gaining in infants and young children,” says Susan H. McFadden, a gerontology expert who wrote Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship, and Flourishing Communities with her husband, John T. McFadden. He is a retired United Church of Christ minister and now serves as a memory care chaplain in Appleton, Wisc.

By 2030, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents are projected to be age 65 or older. This trend is magnified in churches. The average age of United Methodist Church members, for example, is around 60, and the UMC has about twice as many members over 65 as the general population, according to William Randolph, the UMC’s director of aging and older adult ministries.

What’s more, Susan McFadden notes, growing old can be hard on the brain. By age 72, one in three persons experiences cognitive decline. At age 85, up to half of all persons will have some form of dementia.

Some churches see these trends and worry about attracting younger people. At the same time, some aging people fear that dementia will render them alone and useless. But both Randolph and the McFaddens see the growing cohort of older adults as a gift to congregations and as ahuge opportunity for churches to counter the isolating stigma of dementia with a promise to journey together with all affected by it.

Congregations can make this countercultural shift by doing three things: exploring universal design, staying connected in worship, and focusing on reciprocal sharing.

Universal design welcomes all

Universal design for churches means making buildings and worship services flexible enough so that each person can receive and respond as God has gifted them.

Like many congregations, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Montrose, Penn., is already adapting its space for people with physical needs. “Eighty percent of people in our church are 60 or older. We don’t have anyone with dementia or stroke damage, but some people use canes or walkers,” says Lynne Graham, who served five years as senior warden of the vestry.

St. Paul’s installed a ramp out front, added handicapped rails in bathrooms, and secured rugs to the floor. Large-print prayer books are available, and the priest brings the communion elements down the altar steps to people who find it hard to leave the pews. Even those who can’t get to the church building are included.

“We recently started livestreaming our worship services through our church website, and services are archived on YouTube,” Graham says. “Usage statistics show that a fairly large group does look at our services. Some are members who can’t get out to church easily or who winter in Florida. We make sure they have the equipment and skill to access our online worship services.”

Universal design in worship services may require more creativity than putting in a hearing loop system or cutting out pew sections so people in wheelchairs can sit with their families.

The late Eileen Shamy, a Methodist pastor, pioneered ministry to those with dementia in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She noticed that pastors who found ways to lead worship for severely memory-impaired people usually come from sacrament-centered traditions. They value “silence, solitude, order, ‘being,’ symbol, ritual, and the priestly tasks,” she wrote in A Guide to the Spiritual Dimension of Care for People with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia.

She said adapting worship is more difficult for traditions “whose strength (and weakness) may be attributed to the primacy of the word—the read word of Scripture, the preached word of the sermon, the reasoning word in discussion and careful consensus making.”

Worship memories that remain and enliven those with dementia usually flow from:

  • Things congregations voice together in worship: Singing or reciting the Gloria Patri, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or the Lord’s Supper memorial acclamation (Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again)
  • Ways worshipers move their bodies: Kneeling, passing the peace, receiving communion, making the sign of the cross, moving to music, bringing offerings forward to the altar or platform, or minister’s and congregation’s gestures during the benediction
  • Sensory cues: Pre-service music, the sound of water pouring into a baptismal font, incense, candles, processionals with the cross and Bible, vestments, communion sets, or banners

Stay connected in worship

Like many congregations, St. Paul’s Episcopal also wanted to connect with and bring younger people into worship. “A few years ago,” Graham says, “we tried doing afterschool programming for youth. We started with five kids and ended with one. We realized that the Baptist church in our small town is already taking care of local youth. I suggested we target older adults.”  Members began to see their older average age as a gift, not a liability, for ministry.

Intentionally including older adults in ministry helps congregations keep the promises made at baptism: To do all in their power to love, support and encourage the person being adopted into God’s family—regardless of age.

Many churches already mark life and faith formation milestones such as birth, baptism, confirmation and marriage. Why not build on this in worship by using songs, sermons, testimonies and prayers to highlight wisdom, growth and service opportunities in life’s second half? As Presbyterian pastor Carolyn Gillette puts it in her hymn “God, We Spend a Lifetime Growing”: “Strong in you, their strength uplifts us from our birth until life’s end; Spirit-filled, they give us gifts, as prophet, mentor, guide and friend.”

Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church in Leawood, Kan.,designed CrossRoads Ministry “to help those 50+ navigate the second half of their lives with significance and joy.” The ministry offers Sunday morning groups, Bible study, pre-retirement workshops and mission opportunities.

Growing life expectancy has made the “older adults” category multigenerational. These age groups are variously described as “boomers, builders and elders” or “young old, middle old and oldest old.” As people move through these stages, worshiping together can strengthen them by modeling how to let go, deal with grief, and grow spiritually. Congregational lament, openly talking about dementia, praying for care partners, and creating rituals to mark transitioning from one’s own home to a care facility can all help map the journey worshipers take on their way home to live with God.

Christians willing to visit continuing-care campuses find tremendous ministry opportunities.

Graham, for example, recently joined two friends who’ve been offering weekly Episcopal morning prayer at two places, drawing up to 20 people at one site.

Meanwhile, at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., Stephen Martin’s music and worship students designed worship with seniors in mind. They received song requests before leading worship in private homes. At a residence for retired religious and charitable professionals, students presented historical background on hymns that residents and students sang together. Martin says they’ve seen how carefully chosen songs can “wake up the mind.”

And Nancy Gordon, director of the California Lutheran Homes Center for Spirituality and Aging, adapted a children’s worship program to create Sensing the Sacred, a creative liturgy for people with memory loss.

Reciprocal sharing

People often say of a person with a dementia, “He’s just an empty shell now. It’s too sad to visit, because he doesn’t remember me anyway.” This view flows from the idea that someone’s identity is based on what they remember.

But, John T. McFadden says in his pamphlet “Aging, Dementia, and the Faith Community: Continuing the Journey of Friendship”, “Christians have a different story to tell about what gives our lives worth, value and meaning. Personhood is not defined solely by our corporal bodies or our cognitive abilities, but rather by our relationships with others. And we are creatures created in the divine image not because we physically or intellectually resemble the Almighty One, but because God remains in faithful relationship with us in all circumstances and conditions.

“If we should forget God,” McFadden continues, “God will not forget us. And if we forget God, our community of faith can remember us to God and bring God’s presence into our lives through means that do not require us to grasp that presence cognitively.”

McFadden suggests weaving webs of relationships that “soften categories that differentiate and divide.” Congregations can do this by valuing intergenerational partnerships and recognizing that people with memory loss still want to—and can—serve others.

Raymond Village Community Church (UCC) in Raymond, Maine, designed a “Wisdom of Our Elders” worship service at an assisted living residence thatsoftened the line between “ministering” and “being ministered to.”

“We had a familiar order of worship,” Pastor Nancy Foran says, “but in place of a homily we broke into small groups to gather wisdom from residents. They appreciated being asked meaningful questions about what they’re most thankful for and how they got through times of darkness.

“I gathered their responses into a final corporate prayer. Then we all sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ I gave the benediction, and our church’s Very Occasional Men’s Choir sang ‘Bless This House,’ which is a favorite of a church member who lives there,” Foran says.

Other churches have found creative ways for multiple generations to share knowledge and wisdom with each other. At Grace United Methodist Church in Frisco, Texas, people from ages 6 to 60 play in the Ukulele Choir. First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore, Texas, used teams of three young teens and a deacon to make monthly visits to older adults and nursing homes. Some churches offer monthly intergenerational church school or an intergenerational vacation Bible school. Others might ask their youth groups to conduct accessibility surveys of their church property or offer classes in using smartphones or tablets.

Older adults with limited mobility still have gifts to share. They appreciate not only being prayed for but also being asked to pray regularly for specific reasons. “A lady in her 90s is our ‘sunshine person,’” Graham says. “She sends out all the birthday and sympathy cards for St. Paul’s.” Many churches and retirement communities gather plastic bags to weave into waterproof mats for homeless people. Those with less ability can separate and flatten bags for others to weave.

People in early stages of dementia are often still able to read stories to children or read the Scripture lessons during worship. John McFadden says these opportunities for full engagement in service and leading worship are more important than whether the person remembers an hour later what he or she read.

“Worship, fellowship, Bible study and prayer groups, mission and service: members with dementia can share in, and contribute to, many dimensions of church life,” McFadden says. “As they do, they will offer profound gifts to those of us not (yet) on the road to cognitive loss, not the least of which is to teach us to reject the stigmatization of dementia and to overcome our own fear of it.”

Links

LEARN MORE

Read Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship, and Flourishing Communities by Susan H. McFadden and John T. McFadden. View their “Age On” (81 minutes) presentation. Download Aging, Dementia, and the Faith Community: Continuing the Journey of Friendship.

Glean pastoral care and worship ideas from A Guide to the Spiritual Dimension of Care for People with Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia: More than Body, Brain and Breath by Eileen Shamy. Read Dorothy Linthicum’s insights on faith formation in older adults (pp. 45-58).

Network with older adults who are making a difference: Community of Hope International, CrossRoads Ministry and older adult ministries in Episcopal and United Methodist churches.

Fill out this profile and survey from Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network to assess age groups and existing resources in your church and community. Consider connecting with or creating programs such as memory cafe´s, a film and discussion group on spirituality and aging  or Opening Doors to Memory and Imagination: Creating a Museum Program for People with Memory Loss, compiled by Jane Tygesson.

Gather older Christians’ wisdom in a letterwriting project like Ozark Church of Christ did 20 years ago in Nixa, Mo.

Start a group to crochet or weave plastic bags into waterproof mats for homeless people (scroll down to CareMATS section under “Blanketed With Prayer”).

START A DISCUSSION

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, board, worship or social justice team meeting. These questions will help people start talking about aging in your church and community:

  • What universal design changes might you make in your building and worship service so that older people can keep participating? Which of these changes might also make your church more hospitable for children, youth, people with disabilities or people learning your language?
  • How might you join with another congregation to “adopt” residents and staff at a senior care facility?
  • In what ways does your congregation seek, tap and recognize older adults’ gifts of talents, time or wisdom?  In what ways or at what life stages do older adults seem invisible or detached from your life together?

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