By Rev. Michelle Foster
“Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” — Proverbs 16:31
My maternal grandmother is the matriarch of our family. She is a quiet and humble woman with a simple lifestyle in a rural southern Georgia town. She spends the majority of her time alone at home.
Recently, she became ill and had to be hospitalized for a short time. Immediately, her church family surrounded her hospital bed, cared for our family as we came in and out of town to care for her and provided more food and love than any of us could consume.
There were friends who volunteered to pick her up and drive her to church should she feel too weak to drive herself, others who volunteered themselves as caregivers and still others who came sharing wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices. My grandmother’s church was truly the church for her. Even as she continues to recover at my parents’ home in North Carolina, she receives notes from her church family even as my parents receive periodic messages letting them know that the church is also remembers them as her caregiver. My grandmother is doing well and looking forward to the day she can get back to her church and friends.
Recently, I attended a conference at St. Matthew’s UMC for leaders interested in older adult ministries. The crowd that gathered was a diverse group — old and young, clergy and laity, male and female, representing small and large churches throughout our conference. Together we assembled eager to learn and remember the ways in which we need to be the church to the older adults in our congregations and communities. Early into our time together, the Rev. Dr. Rick Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older-Adult Ministries at the General Board of Discipleship, shared that by 2020 the number of people in the U.S. over 50 will grow by 74 percent while the number of people under 50 will grow by only 1 percent.
This staggering statistic reminds us again of the call that we all have to make sure that we are living as the church for younger, middle and older adults. As I listened and conversed with others throughout the day, several questions and thoughts came to mind. I share them with you as a means of reflection and call to action.
• How do you address the spiritual needs of the older adults in your congregation? Some of these needs may be to love and be loved; understand and embrace forgiveness from God, others and ourselves; have purpose in the community of faith; participate in worship that is meaningful and speaks into their life.
• How accessible and hospitable is your church to older adults? Many older adults find it difficult to enter a building without a wheelchair ramp; walk without handrails down long halls or up stairs and ramps; go some distance to a classroom, the sanctuary, parking lot or restrooms; read small print, and hear with poor acoustics.
• How does your church encourage older adults in maintaining their independence? Are all your church activities at night? Do you offer any type of alternative transportation for those that no longer drive? Are hearing assistance devices available for rooms that have poor acoustics? Do you offer educational opportunities that address the needs of older adults such as financial planning seminars, outreach and mission opportunities, personal safety and protection workshops, spiritual growth opportunities and activities that focus on proper nutrition and physical activity.
• How does your church convey to older adults the message “we want you to continue to be a vital part of our congregation?” The church, through its prayers, presence, gifts and service is truly conveying to my grandmother how vital a part of the church community she is to them. I hope your church is too.
Foster serves on the conference staff working the Safe Sanctuaries and children’s and family ministries.