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Understanding Today’s Senior Adults

By Richard D. Dobbins

Confronting the ignoranceand myths that cloud our understanding of aging and older people.

Approximately one out of every five Americans is 65 years of age or older. And the numbers are growing. As the years and quality of life are lengthened, old age is being redefined. For example, some sociologists are extending middle age up to 65. People from 66 to 75 are referred to as the young old. Those from 76 to 85 are considered the old, old. People over 86 years of age are referred to as the frail elderly. We spend one-fourth of our lives growing up and three-fourths of our lives growing old.

Although our society spends time and money helping older people understand teenagers, very little time or money is spent helping younger people understand those who are older. In fact, there is a tendency on the part of younger people to isolate older people from their activities. Perhaps this is a way that some have of not dealing with their fear of death. However, there needs to be a better way of dealing with death than dying young or pretending that you will never be old.

One healthy way of dealing with aging is to stay current with information about aging and maintain an ongoing dialogue with people who are getting older. After all, getting older is the price we all pay for living so long; and, when confronted with the other option, most of us are willing to pay that price.

Let’s confront the ignorance and myths that cloud our understanding of aging and older people by circulating accurate information.

TEN POPULAR MYTHS ABOUT AGING

  1. A majority of those over 65 are senile. Fact: Only 2 to 3 percent of those over 65 are institutionalized for any psychiatric illness.
  2. A large percentage of the aged is living in institutions for long-term care. Fact: Less than 5 percent of those over 65 and less than 10 percent of those over 75 are in long-term care facilities.
  3. Aged drivers have more accidents than younger drivers. Fact: Drivers over age 65 have fewer accidents per driver than those under age 65.
  4. Most older workers cannot work as effectively as younger workers. Fact: The majority of older workers can work just as effectively as younger workers. Our Assemblies of God MAPS program is evidence of this.
  5. Most older people are set in their ways and unable to change. Fact: Most older people are able to change if they choose to change.
  6. It is almost impossible for older people to learn new things. Fact: Sometimes older people learn at a slower pace, but their ability to learn does not decrease appreciably.
  7. Most old people have no interest in or capacity for sexual relations. Fact: Most people over age 65 retain their interest in and their capacity for sexual relations.
  8. In general, most old people are alike. Fact: Older people retain their uniqueness as individuals just as do people of any age.
  9. Most old people are socially isolated and lonely. Fact: Less than 20 percent of retirees indicate loneliness to be a problem for them.
  10. The health and socioeconomic status of older people will continue to decline as we move into the 21st century. Fact: The health and socioeconomic status of older people will improve as we move into the 21st century.

You perform a much needed and valuable service to your congregation by circulating this kind of information from the pulpit and through your church publications.

SOME ELDERLY PEOPLE NEED SPECIAL MINISTRY

It is true that catastrophic illness, poverty, family, and community neglect do affect a significant but small percentage of older Americans. The church must address the needs of these people for spiritual, emotional, and practical support. This can be done by: expressing their concerns from the pulpit; pastoral visits and prayer; carrying in meals; volunteer transportation; and helping the elderly locate available community services.

Be familiar with community services that are available to your elderly through your local social services department. Publicize that information regularly in your church publications. Become acquainted with people in the social services system before these services are needed. This way, when a member needs the services and you contact the agency on their behalf, the staff there will be familiar with you and your church.

OLDER PEOPLE ENJOY RESPECT

The Old and New Testaments ascribe a place of honor and respect for those who are older (Leviticus 19:32; Ephesians 6:2). From time to time, encourage members to express their appreciation to older people in the congregation. Remind the older people that honor and respect carry a responsibility to show younger people a godly example of the stewardship of life.

There is plenty of excellent sermon material for challenging the elderly and honoring them at the same time in Bible stories about: Enoch, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Anna, Simeon, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and many others.

RETAINING SENIOR ADULTS

Senior adults are a great spiritual resource for the church. Through the years, they have learned the importance of prayer and can be counted on to undergird the church with prayer. Challenge them to do this. Since many of them have their days free, schedule specific times for them to meet for prayer. Show an interest in their prayer ministry. Let them know how much you depend on their prayers. Periodically recognize their prayer ministry publicly.

The senior adults in your congregation have time to get involved in many volunteer activities. Unlike young adults and those dealing with midlife madness, senior adults are no longer rushing through life. Providing meaningful projects for them serves to keep them involved and to get many things done that the church budget may not be able to afford.

In planning your worship services, don’t forget the senior adults. Music is a great bridge between generations. In catering to the musical preferences of younger people, don’t forget to include songs and choruses that are familiar to your senior adults. They will enjoy singing the new choruses preferred by the young much more if some recognition is given to hymns and gospel songs that mean so much to them.

Be aware of the decibel level of your worship. Somewhere between the volume level that pleases the young and the volume level that pleases the old there is a balance that both find comfortable.

Create a worship environment that gives people permission to stand or sit in worship. Standing for more than 15 or 20 minutes becomes tiresome for older adults. However, they do not want to be seated if this gives the impression they are not as involved in worship as those who are standing; or, that those who are standing love Jesus more than they do. Frequently giving people pastoral permission to sit or stand in worship will make older folks and everyone else more comfortable.

Insensitivity to these considerations has resulted in a silent exodus of senior adults from many congregations. With them go their volunteer services, their prayer ministry, and their financial resources. The wise pastor sees the folly of unnecessarily sacrificing these resources.

HELPING SENIOR ADULTS GET MORE OUT OF LIFE

Bring to your seniors’ attention the guidelines gerontologists suggest for helping them get more out of the last third of life. Here are some of their suggestions:

  1. Maintain sensible health benefits. These include diet, exercise, rest, and medical care. Seniors living alone have a tendency to neglect their diet and to get little exercise. Community dietitians can speak at your seniors meetings and provide valuable dietary information. Making appropriate exercise a regular part of your seniors meetings will also be helpful.
  2. Keep involved in life. Encourage your seniors to stay mentally fit. They can read, go back to school, walk, and play. Jesus said work is an important part of life—not a curse (John 5:17). Having nothing to do and nothing to look forward to can lead to a premature death. Having a reason to live is related to living well and living long. Don’t let aging deprive them of the joy of long-term goals. Many people have produced their most significant work in later years. These include Grandma Moses, Winston Churchill, Colonel Sanders, and Ronald Reagan.
  3. Save enough money to maintain a standard of living during retirement. Studies show that poverty intensifies the effects of the aging process.
  4. Establish and maintain warm relationships with people of all ages and from all walks of life.
  5. Be adaptable and flexible.
  6. Try new ideas. Start with recipes, rearrange your furniture, plant a garden, and tackle computer skills.
  7. Keep a positive faith and philosophy of life. I wish everyone could face his or her later years with the flair of a friend of mine. He was in his midseventies when I asked him, "Tom, as you reached the place in your life where you knew you would not be here as long as you had been here already, how did you deal with that?"

"Oh, that’s easy," he said. "I began to realize that any day above ground is a good day and to see each day for the rich gift from God that it is. I determined not to let any concern about tomorrow rob me of my celebration of the moment."

Later, I thought, Isn’t it a shame we have to live so long to become so wise?

The last two or three decades of life can be our most productive and enjoyable years. They are God’s gift to us. What we make of them is our gift to Him.

Richard D. Dobbins, Ph.D., an Assemblies of God minister, is a clinical psychologist and founder and clinical director of EMERGE Ministries, Akron, Ohio.

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