Ministering to the Aged

By: David B. Oliver, Ph.D.

Several years ago a student of mine became a “homemaker” for the city of San Antonio. On her first trip out she knocked on the door of an 85-year-old lady and was met by her at the door. My student said, “Ma’am, I’m from the City of San Antonio Homemaker Program. I’m here to help you with your chores and with the cleaning of your apartment.” The woman seemed somewhat irritated, so the student asked, “Did the office call you?” The elderly woman looked carefully at my student and said, “Young lady! You’re not here to help me. You’re here to help Mother.” And sure enough, Mother, in the back room, was 109 years old; she just wanted someone to read Newsweek to her so she could keep up with the news.

More and more persons are living to a ripe old age. Due to tremendous advances in the control of communicable and infectious
diseases, life expectancy has skyrocketed. The treatment of chronic health conditions – particularly those related to the heart and circulatory system – has also served to extend the lives of many senior adults. Persons reaching the age of 65 now have a good chance (better than 50-50) of living into their 80s. As life expectancy continues to increase, the number of aged and aging will also rise. There is no question that we are now confronting some very important challenges in the realm of effective ministry among senior adults.

Understanding the needs of the elderly is the first step to meeting the challenges created by these needs. One of many concerns I have is the lack of identity and self worth faced by a large number of older persons. Unfortunately, in this and many countries, identity is intimately linked to occupation. Of course, we all know that we are not who we are because of what we do or what we produce. Such a notion runs in direct opposition to every long-honored, religious tradition. Nevertheless, we have a preoccupation with linking identity and vocation. And too many times, when an individual retires from a career, he or she also
retires from an identity that was the supporting factor in a shaky self-image.

For many aging adults, the end of a professional career not only dims the view they have of themselves, but also clouds the glasses
through which they are seen by the active world.

The number one question I am asked these days is, “Dr. Oliver, what should I do with my mother and father?” I’ve spoken in about 35 churches in the last couple of years, and it is the burning question of adult children. Adult children are very concerned,
very worried, anxious and want very much to understand, yet they often are the chief source of many incorrect images and stereotypes about older people in our culture today. The misconceptions that older people are frail, senile and unable to function socially in the fast-paced world in which we live are typically generated by adults who have little understanding of what aging is all about.

I have a good friend who was recently in Washington, D.C. visiting a high-rise complex for older persons. Next to the retirement
housing was an orphanage with a playground connecting the two buildings. My friend was on the third floor with an 80-year-old
man, a resident of the home, and they were looking out the window watching the older people joyfully playing with the younger kids on the playground below.

My friend turned to the elderly man and said, “What is it? What’s the chemistry you old folks have with these young kids? Why do you get along so well?”

The old man replied, “It’s because we have a common enemy!”

What a profound statement. Yet when adult children take over the lives of their aging parents and make decisions prematurely with inadequate information and a lack of understanding, they are indeed the enemy.

In addition to problems caused by loss of identity and limiting stereotypes, aging persons often are forced to contend with
housing and transportation inconveniences. In order to experience the dramas of life we must be able to get to them. And the older we get, the greater the likelihood we will be dependent on others for our daily escapes into the various social worlds of
excitement. This is particularly a problem for older women – a full one-third never learned to drive. Another third can’t afford to drive a car or have had their insurance policies canceled.

Challenges such as these cannot be easily dismissed. It may seem simple to identify the need to encourage individual worth beyond careers and into retirement or widowhood; the need for active adults to develop greater understanding of aging persons; and the need for greater response to the housing and transportation needs of the elderly. Yet what are the first steps necessary to meet these challenges?

It seems to me that challenges such as these force us to develop a whole new way of conceptualizing oldness. What is aging? What does it mean to be older? How can we understand the common experiences of older persons? How can wrinkles be valued? I have a friend who is an Episcopal priest (and a professional clown) who recently told me about approaching a member of his congregation (in the role of a clown) and running his hands over a long wrinkle in the woman’s face. “That’s beautiful,” he said, “How long did it take you to earn that one?” The lady’s radiant smile was a sufficient answer.

One of my aunts has many “brown spots” on her skin. A young child, after looking, feeling and rubbing them, asked, “What are these?” She replied, “They are beauty marks, and it takes a long time to get them. Don’t you like them?” The child looked on with admiration. The spots now looked like merit badges.

We need a new conceptualization of age. Aging is much more than simply chronological age, wrinkles and brown spots. In the health care field we continue to put too much emphasis on the frail elderly. At best, only 16% of the elderly are limited because of health problems. Moreover, at any one time, only 5% of the elderly are living in nursing homes. The focus on the physical nature of aging (in a negative way) reinforces the image of old age as a problem and as a disease. In spite of the fact that 85% of the
elderly are functionally healthy, a negative image of old age continues to dominate our thinking.

Instead of lumping the aging person into a limiting stereotype, we need to develop an image of aging which reflects the nature of the individual along a number of dimensions. An elderly adult is maturing physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. These
four dimensions are constantly interacting with each other. Physically, you can have a stroke which may psychologically cause
you to develop a very negative self-image; your physical appearance and psychological image may cause people to withdraw from you; and of course, the cumulative effect may be that your spirit will suffer. To minister effectively, we must discover the souls, rather than the wrinkles, of older persons. We must see all the dimensions of selfhood.

Once we develop a new perspective on aging, perhaps we can begin to implement this perspective in our daily lives, reaching out to the elderly where they live. We must ask, what makes life a drama? What makes it exciting, worth living? As you recall the chapters in the story of your life, what stands out? Generally, most people celebrate intimate, close, personal relationships and events they have shared with others. When I do oral histories with older persons, I find that they never talk about promotions,
achievements and accomplishments. They talk about the reunion 20 years ago, or about a funeral, or that time on the mountainside when the sun was setting and “I was hugging my husband and we were one with God and one with nature and one with each other, and we didn’t even say a word.” Moments of experiencing significant relationships with friends makes life dramatic.

I’m not talking about relationships with acquaintances, or friends, or even close friends. I mean relationships with confidants, people who reinforce who we are, people who know us so well we cannot wear a mask in their presence, people who love us in spite of who we are. Now, if these kinds of persons reinforce who we are, what happens to us when they are gone?

The older we get, we are touched less and less. Our confidants die, or they move away, or they lose transportation and can no
longer visit us or they have a health problem which limits further participation with us. It’s painful when you lose your confidants.
One result (particularly in institutional settings) is what I refer to as the “latching on” phenomenon. None of us want to be
abandoned or rejected. Those who have lost their confidant(s) reach out to family, friends, staff, ministers, anyone who might love them in return. This presents no problem if they are lovable. But what if they are “unlovable”?

When I visit a nursing home, the administrator or director of nurses often takes me down the hall to introduce me to a resident,
usually the “favorite.” Recently this happened in Topeka, Kansas. The “favorite” had just turned 100 years old and the news media
was there taking pictures. I went over and whispered in her ear, “Did they make over you like this when you were 99?” She replied, “Heck, no! I wish I’d lied about my age.” She was full of humor (a gift at any age) and a delight to be around-she was lovable. What concerns me are the “unlovables,” those who are paralyzed, those who know they don’t look good, those who are incontinent and are extremely embarrassed about it. These persons make up a small percentage of the total number of elderly, yet they have the same – and sometimes a greater – need to be “touched” by someone who loves them.

Let me conclude by saying that I am looking forward to old age. I just hope society gets its act together in time. I want it to begin to celebrate the diversity which exists among older persons, the wisdom and knowledge, the reality of sexuality in later years, the need for confidants; to celebrate and acknowledge the value and worth of persons apart from their age. More than anything I always want something to do and someone to do it with.

We are somebody, we are a gift, we are loved unconditionally regardless of our place and human condition. God’s loving grace for each of us is a message that needs to be heard – and more importantly, experienced – by persons who feel alienated and abandoned. Some theologians have called for a “theology of “aging” when actually the old theology is just fine. We need simply to
articulate it in direct concert with the experience and needs of older persons. A kind touch transmitted through the holding of
knowing and understanding hands can often be a sufficient expression that God still loves us – theology of the best kind never needs to be spoken.

(The above material was published by Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO.)

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