The host discussed at great length yesterday, and mentioned again today, this article in the Wall Street Journal:
Baby boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history, and the resulting loneliness is a looming public health threat. About one in 11 Americans age 50 and older lacks a spouse, partner or living child, census figures and other research show. That amounts to about eight million people in the U.S. without close kin, the main source of companionship in old age, and their share of the population is projected to grow.
The piece then goes on to describe the health effects of and some of the causes that have created this situation, but the piece is mostly anecdotal. Some of the causes are simply implicit in the situations – multiple divorces, outliving your support network – things like that. The host beat me to the punch in mentioning church as the place to find relationships and a support network. But many churches are not up to this kind of ministry. Most congregations are either dying away and therefore unable to support themselves, let alone someone new, or they are so focused on growth that a senior that will not drag along people with them is just a low priority. Churches in order to be attractive to the public often reflect, perhaps more than they should, the prevailing societal outlook about a lot of things. And therein lies the heart of this issue.
As a society, we do not value the elderly. That is both silly, due to the accumulated wisdom of age, and immoral. If we value life, as we so loudly claim to do with regards to the unborn, must we not also value life for the elderly, the infirmed and even the dying? Yet even many of the elderly with family and strong relational ties, when they become deeply impaired with dementia or other difficulties of age, end up more or less abandoned in the care home just waiting to die. We seem to measure their worth not by the life in them, as we do with the unborn, but by their ability to “contribute” in some fashion – which has sadly left the elderly. When you combine that with a prevailing attitude that no one in the US, most especially a white, elderly man or woman with enough money to get by, can be among “the lost and the least” I begin to wonder if the issue is much bigger than the WSJ piece paints it. Sometimes I weep for churches that put massive efforts into places like Tijuana or the Dominican Republic yet leave the lonely old man sitting in the back of the sanctuary Sunday-after-Sunday unattended.
The WSJ focuses on this loneliness epidemic largely as a health issue, but given the prevailing attitude of many towards the elderly and infirmed I wonder if the answer we are likely to hear from many will be some form of euthanasia. We come dangerously close to it now with the way “hospice care” is practiced in some places. If this does not frighten you, it should.
So yes, the host is absolutely, 100% right that church is the place to turn when you are looking for a support network in your elder years. But church has to turn towards the elderly as well. I know, “growth” is in the young families with kids, but in largely ignoring the elderly one must question if we are being true to God’s call. Should not those young families be ministering to the elderly? My wife and I, over the years, have relished the opportunities we have had to include the elderly and alone from our church in our holiday celebrations. Imagine a church that makes a point of matching the elderly and alone with church families each year! Imagine just how much that man or woman that spends so much time in their home just letting TV wash over them would appreciate being in a house full of noise and excitement and energy for Thanksgiving or Christmas. And that is just one, fairly simple, idea.
As Christmas approaches it is also budget season in many congregations around the country. Churches are setting their ministry priorities for the next year. I would challenge them to consider becoming deliberate and purposeful in meeting the challenges presented by this WSJ article.