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27 June 2016

How old is elderly?

How old is elderly?

When I started researching for this article, I thought I'd better check in with Betty from my church. Betty's an 80-plus powerhouse who gets around like she's about 60. You know the kind of lady I'm talking about… I gave her a few questions about ministering to the elderly in church and Betty's simple reply was: "When do we become elderly?"

She's right – what does it mean to be elderly? Is it an age? Is it a capacity? Is it a state of mind? The truth is, being elderly these days is not the same as it was when the elderly were young – 75 isn't a grand old age anymore, and 90 won't necessarily restrict you to the arm chair all day long. In the same vein, the body will always deteriorate and those who are relatively young can still struggle with poor physical and mental health.

Elderly just isn't a neat question of retired or not, in a care home or not, still driving or not; quite often we find that 'old age' is defined by attitude and motivation rather than a number, and that people's capacity to continue to live, work, serve and contribute continues and changes at very different paces. Church shouldn't be a place where the 'old' are pigeon-holed, we've got to work within their uniqueness. 

While old age might be less easy to define, there does however inevitably come a point when older people simply can't do what they once did. It's a double trauma: not only is physical deterioration a challenge, but so is the mental and emotional change that comes with old age. Put that in the context of a rapidly changing world, one in which many older people struggle to keep up with social and cultural change and technological advancement, and it's no surprise ageing can be a real trial.

So, with all this in mind, how can the Church minister to a group in flux, negotiating physical, mental, emotional, and cultural challenges? How can we best be not only caring for our elderly, but using them too? How do we create a space where a fiveyear- old and an 85-year-old can meet God together, grow in their knowledge and love of Him, and serve one another?

Churches must avoid the habit of writing off our elderly. Some of the older people in our churches will have been serving the Church for their entire lives, only to hit 80 and suddenly find there is no space for them in their church family any more. Someone else is more physically able to stand up on the welcome team, a once strong voice can no longer hold a note, or, worst of all, it's time to surrender the driving license.

Maureen O'Neil, CEO of Faith in Older People (FIOP), a Scottish charity focusing on ageing and spirituality, notes a tone that often filters through our cultural conversation around ageing that largely assumes that older people are a burden to society, especially as we hear headlines and scare stories about the ageing population. She says the Church has a really important role to play in countering this story of "burden" and instead creating a culture where the gifts of the elderly are recognised and utilised. 

We need to help older people find their new place in church, especially taking into account that church now might be very different from the church they've experienced for most of their lives, with greater emphasis on community outreach, less emphasis on Sunday mornings, changing styles of teaching and sung worship. For many older people it's a real challenge to continue to understand how they fit into a structure that's so different from what they were once used to. 

As a church family, we need to make a joined-up, concerted effort to help older people find their new gifting. How do we recognise the skills, experiences and hopes of our elderly and find a new space for them? Can the welcome team member transfer to the less physically strenuous prayer team? Maybe the tenor can't sing any more, but can he read the lesson? And can the former driver discovering a new skill of drying up the coffee cups? 

We should certainly be listening to the older generations in our church families as they work through the changes going on around them. While it can be tempting to write off a complaint about the drums being too loud, we need to remember that for many older people, the church was a place of peace and sanctuary. That doesn't mean we should chuck out the drum kit, but valuing older members of our church community means listening to them, and hearing and understanding their concerns. Understanding their contributions, and experiences is a really important way to acknowledge the many years of service that our older church members have put in. 

Of course, one of the biggest challenges to wider society, churches, and other faith organisations, is the increasing number of older people suffering from dementia. FIOP is working to train churches to be able to meet the needs of those with dementia. Maureen O'Neil says making people with dementia welcome, training churches to be confident to support them, and adapting how we do church goes a long way to providing an inclusive space for older members of our community.

The real value in adapting our church spaces to be accessible to older people, and especially those with dementia, means that churches can help maintain the continuity that is so important when so much else around them is changing. Maureen O'Neil urges the Church to "make sure that something that's been really important throughout someone's life is not removed from them because we don't understand how to cope with it."

Let's get creative as we seek to give older people a vibrant and visible place in our church communities. Let's hear from them, give them opportunities to share the long story of Jesus in their lives; let's work with them to discover their new outlets and gifts in their changing circumstances; let's take our young children to sit with them during our services, teaching the young to hear from the old; let's train and challenge our communities to make space for those suffering from dementia, so that we can minister without fear.


FIOP is working hard to help churches adapt and include older people, Alliance member Livability is doing similar work, and Christians on Ageing have brought together churches across the UK to work together on issues of ageing in the Church. Other charities involved in reaching older people are Pilgrim Homes and The Gift of Years.

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