James Houston (emeritus professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver) and Michael Parker (associate professor in the School of Social Work and at the Center of Mental Health & Aging at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and adjunct associate professor in the Division of Geriatric Medicine & Palliative Care and Center for Aging) have written a ground-breaking book that has inspired me for my future ministry. It is entitled, A VISION FOR THE AGING CHURCH: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors.
They celebrate the fact that we are living longer and can live more fulfilled lives if we reframe the second half of our lives. If we are engaged with our community and connected to each other in our congregations we can age more successfully.
Most churches are focused on ministry to younger people – the millennials – in order to grow. But the most rapidly growing segment of our population (and especially in Florida), is our seniors. A baby-boomer will turn sixty-five every twenty seconds. For the first time in the USA those over age sixty-five now outnumber those age eighteen and younger. Centenarians represent the fastest growing age group in our country. Surveys and experts indicate that most people, when asked, underestimate their longevity and therefore fail to plan adequately for it. A sixty-five year old woman can expect to live, on average, another nineteen years, five of which will be years of dependency. For men, life expectancy after sixty-five is approximately fifteen years, with three years of dependency.
The church can help identify and target those at risk and provide interventions and training, e.g. fall prevention programs. We can promote healthy care-giving practices, caregiving support, late-life planning, aging-in-place initiatives and strategies for successful aging, and uphold the inherent value of the dependent and the disabled.
The Bible is full of admonition to take care of our elders. “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7) It also counsels elders to keep learning and growing spiritually and not remain frozen by their past and condemned to regression in their old age. We are pilgrims on a journey that is never completed this side of eternity. Since seniors are living close to the edge of their lifespan, they should be infecting others with a joyous way of life. Joy expresses spiritual maturity, an emotional summation that God is doing well with our soul.
The authors debunk several myths about aging.
Myth #1: To be old is to be sick. While the proportion of elderly who are fully functioning and robust does decline with advancing age, almost 75 per cent of seniors between the ages of seventy-five and eighty-four report no disability. One theory is that the percent of seniors experiencing an active life and delayed disease and disability will continue to increase.
Myth #2: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Research suggests that though seniors may require a slower pace to learn new information, they not only can do it, but they may be able to act upon new learning more effectively than younger persons.
Myth #3: The horse is out of the barn. It is not too late to change lifestyles. Health changes reduce incidences of disease and disability. Exercise and diet can increase physical fitness.
Myth #4: The secret to successful aging is to choose your parents wisely. The role of genetics in aging has been overemphasized and overstated. Lifestyle is more important.
Myth #5: The lights may be on, but the voltage is low. The voltage is never too low for affectionate physical contact. Such contact may help keep the lights on!
Myth #6: The elderly don’t pull their own weight. Seniors play a major role in the work place and in voluntary service.
The key elements of successful aging are the avoidance of disease and disability, the maintenance of physical and cognitive function, active engagement with life and positive spiritual growth and development. Your relationship with Christ will improve your psychological well-being, reduce levels of depression and distress, reduce disease and increase your life span.
You will be hearing more on these issues from me in the future.