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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2011 Archives > May-June 2011 Archives > Older adult ministries growing with population

Older adult ministries growing with population  

By Cecile S. Holmes

First United Methodist Church member Barbara Heaton enjoys her birthday cake at a party held for her at Wesley Acres in Des Moines, Iowa. Helping her celebrate is Christine Anders.
First United Methodist Church member Barbara Heaton enjoys her birthday cake at a party held for her at Wesley Acres in Des Moines, Iowa. Helping her celebrate is Christine Anders.
INTERPRETER PHOTO/CHRISTINE ANDERS
As just-turned-70 Bob Dylan croons, “The times they are a-changin’,” he could be singing about older adults and older adult ministry in The United Methodist Church.

Baby boomers, the same generation that 50 years earlier brought an explosion in ministries for children and youth is now causing churches to reconsider ministry with older adults. Adults who were once considered a single group are now segmented into interest and ability groupings and several generations.

Ten years ago, when Wilma Williams started working in older adult ministry at First United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, a lunchtime program with a speaker and a trip or two each year were sufficient, she says.

“We still have programs,” Williams says, “but we also have more activities. Older adults are the most active group in our church.” Their projects are multiple, ranging from giving “blankets of love” to every child in the church to a “caregiver’s day-out” program.

Multi-dimensional ministry

Changing needs and changing demographics among older Americans drive today’s older adult ministries, says the Rev. Richard Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries for the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.

Average life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 78 years in the past 100 years, he says. “That has had a profound impact. Not only are we living longer than 100 years ago, we’re living healthier,” he says. “The older adults who are with us now are really pioneers.”

The church’s early ministry to older adults took the form of  building nursing homes to care for clergy widows. It is now multi-dimensional, ranging from supporting those who are homebound to sponsoring classes and studies to organizing crews of retirees to serve in tornado-devastated communities. Age alone no longer dictates what ministry older adults need – or can provide.

Two women in their 90s are among the most active participants in OWLS, Older Wiser Laughing Souls, at Reidland United Methodist Church in Paducah, Ky. The church began the ministry in 2006 after its volunteer co-coordinators, Cathy Burkhead and Lynda Karnes, both retirees, attended a workshop. Reidland realized that more than 60 percent of its 400 members were over age 55, Burkhead says.

Karnes obtained a license to drive the church’s bus. Burkhead took the lead generating ideas. “It took two heads on this one to be successful,” says Burkhead.

Redland’s older adults complete an annual survey to help the coordinators select OWLS’ speakers, programs and trips. Older adults conduct a yearly worship service and play in an eight-member musical group, the Owleluia Chimers, and engage in a host of other ministries.

Living longer, seeking purpose

In general, today’s older adults in the United States not only live longer, they are also  healthier and wealthier than previous generations. At the same time, most people older than 65 have or will experience multiple transitions brought on by lost roles, a loss of a spouse, lost income and even the loss of a driver’s license.

 “One of the great difficulties as we age is finding purpose and meaning in life,” says Gentzler. We hear some older people say, ‘I don’t know why God keeps me here.’ What they’re saying is they feel they no longer have purpose or meaning in their lives.” Ministry with older adults needs to consider all of these issues.

The church should respond to the differences among older adults creatively, say experts including Missy Buchanan, an active member of First United Methodist Church in Rockwall, Texas. She is the author of three books related to aging, including “Don’t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults.”

“The one-size-fits-all approach to older adult ministries won't work in the future,” she says. “People tend to forget that today's older adults are a very diverse group.”
Making blankets for a shelter for homeless women and children was among the activities when several generations came together for the spring Women’s Retreat sponsored by First United Methodist church in Des Moines, Iowa.
Making blankets for a shelter for homeless women and children was among the activities when several generations came together for the spring Women’s Retreat sponsored by First United Methodist church in Des Moines, Iowa.
INTERPRETER PHOTO/CHRISTINE ANDERS

“An active older adult who can ballroom dance and play golf is very different than one who is frail and spends his days in a recliner,” she says. “But both need to be nurtured and encouraged by the church.”

Vibrant, healthy churches know where their older members are, Buchanan says. They do not forget the once-active adults who  now live in assisted living and care centers, unable to get to church because they do not drive or do not have the physical energy to attend.

These churches offer ministry through regular visits and “find ways to bring ‘church’ to them.” They also encourage those who cannot be present in person to continue to serve by praying for those on the church prayer list, writing devotions for Lent and Advent and leading or participating in Bible study in care centers where they live.

Consider more than age

At First United Methodist Church in Des Moines, Iowa, staff member Christine Anders says the church has tried to do away with age-related labels, and let people “self select” from varied adult programming.

People know their own interests and physical abilities, she says. “You can have 80-year-olds who want to participate in a canoeing retreat and 30-year-olds who want to attend a funeral-planning workshop.”

Experts say older-adult ministry organizers must recognize that the baby boomer generation (people born from 1946 to 1964) resists any label that hints of the word “old.”

Baby boomers will seldom participate in a group with a “cutesy name: Golden Classics, Old Timers, etc.,” Buchanan says. “Bottom line, boomers do not want to be associated with the same group as their aging parents. Today's younger older adults are focused on doing whatever it takes to stay young and active for as long as possible.”

Pam Jaco, director of senior adult ministry and evangelism at First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tenn., agrees. “One of our biggest problems is that we don’t like to admit we are aging,” says Jaco, a baby boomer.

Involving boomers in older-adult ministries is a challenge, says Jaco. She has had success with two-hour trips to Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.,  to see Broadway play tour companies and equal success with longer “destination trips.”

For an active group of 75-90-year-olds, Jaco coordinates day trips, such as a river cruise, tour of an automotive plant and a gallery and garden visit.

Senior volunteers at Jackson First also deliver video players and DVDs of Sunday services to the homebound, and soon will take communion to shut-ins.

Parish nursing ministries can assist older adults who want to remain in their homes when health problems arise, says Pat Magyar of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Parish nurses can provide information about services to help coordinate home care for the older adult and to meet other needs.

So many issues affect life as one ages, Gentlzer says. “A good older adult ministry program is truly empowering –– equipping older adults to live out their faith as Christian disciples in the world.”

--Cecile Holmes is a veteran religion journalist and associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.




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