THE BLOG
12/17/2011 09:06 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2012

How Does the Faith Community Honor Elders?

Recently, I had a conversation with an elderly person who is tired of living. She has outlived her family and her friends. While she has some chronic health issues, she is basically doing well. Her hearing is going and her eyesight requires that she wears glasses. Her heart is strong though her will to live is not. Her mind is sharp but she lacks stimulation.

Lillian lives in a facility that gives her the "basics" of what she needs, but they don't provide her with any stimulation. She does not make friends easily because she is an outspoken person and says what is on her mind. She has deep faith in God, but even that is beginning to wane because she doesn't go to church anymore. The pastor, with whom she was close, has taken a position in a church in another state. Lillian can't get to church every Sunday because the transportation available to her is unpredictable. It would pick her up hours before the service and not return until several hours after the service had ended. Even if she stayed at church for lunch, she might still have to wait an extended time for the car service to pick her up. She doesn't want to "trouble" anyone by asking them to drive her to or from the facility in which she lives because it is quite a distance from the church.

Lillian is not alone in her situation. Because we are living longer with chronic health problems that can be "managed," our health care system and many long-term care facilities, are not able to keep up with the needs of our growing elder population who are living longer and remaining vital well into their nineties and even hundreds. Similarly, our churches seem to be struggling with this same issue. How do we maintain relationships with our elders when they can no longer attend church "regularly" and need to rely on others for transportation to and from church? One very large church in Manhattan is trying to address this issue. But it is not an easy issue to address because there are so many complications involved in trying to ensure that long-time members are continually connected to the church.

Another factor that has to be considered is how far apart families live. Those whose children live far from them, tend to rely more on their faith community to give them the support they need. Whether it is helping them deal with a death or helping them to find someone to accompany them to a doctor's appointment, our elders have come to rely on their long-term relationship with their house of worship to help them when they live alone and a long way from their children and/or grandchildren.

Jennifer Senior, in her article "Alone Together," writes that there is evidence that strong social networks help slow the progression of Alzheimer's. She also cites evidence suggesting that weak social networks pose as great a risk to heart-attack patients as obesity and hypertension. "There's also evidence to suggest that the religious people who live the longest are the ones who attend services most frequently rather than feel their beliefs most deeply. (It's not faith that keeps them alive, in other words, but people.)"[1] I would argue that point; religious observance has been shown to improve people's health outcomes and rebounding from surgery and other health-related issues. However, the social component has not been looked at independently (as far as I know), so there is a possibility that the social networking does improve the chances of someone living longer who physically goes to church.

Perhaps the most disturbing information comes from a 2004 article in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which found that many common and chronic illnesses are associated with an increased risk of suicide in elderly people. According to this study, approximately every 83 minutes, one adult 65 years or older, commits suicide in the U.S. Statistics show that elderly people kill themselves at a higher rate than any other segment of the populations in many countries. Depression, bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) and severe pain were associated with the largest increases in suicide risk. "However, several other chronic illnesses including seizure disorder, congestive heart failure, and chronic lung disease, were also associated with an increased risk for suicide."[2]

How churches care for their elders like Lillian shows how much they value their elders. It also shows where their values are. I can't imagine that Jesus would forget our elders, and neither should we. So, how do we, as a faith community, honor our elders? How do we make sure that they still feel valued and that we find ways to let them know that we appreciate the work that they did for the church in their younger years?

Churches need to make involving our elders in the life of the church a priority. Younger members of our churches need to step up and ensure that these important connections for the elder person, as well as the church, are not just maintained, but are nurtured. Elders have a great deal of wisdom to offer -- we need to honor that wisdom and seek to build relationships and programs that help our elders to know that they have not been forgotten by God or by us.

Footnotes:
[1] ] Jennifer Senior, "Alone Together" New York, November 23, 2008. http://nymag.com/news/features/52450/
[2] Marian Anne Eure, "Suicide and Illness Link: Identify those seniors at higher risk of suicide." About.com Senior Health (referring to Eve K. Moscicki; Eric D. Caine, Opportunities of Life: Preventing Suicide in Elderly Patients, Arch Intern Med. 2004;164(11):1171-1172.)