From Principle to Practice: Caring for the Elderly

Matthew 25

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was sick and you looked after me.’ ”

Ron has been busy during his retirement.  When he came to worship at Calvary Church about eight years ago, he brought with him several decades of ministry experience and the compassion of a tender heart.  He and his wife, Jean, offered to serve their new church family by visiting the homebound seniors. 

“Who is in charge of the care of our seniors?” they asked.

“There is no one in charge of that.”

“Well, what is the schedule for visiting these folks?”

“There is no schedule.”

“Then where is the list of our homebound members?  So we can make a schedule.”

“There is no list.”

I wish I could say that this is the exception.   Instead, it is a rather common occurrence in American churches.  People are virtually forgotten just when they reach the point in life when they need the most care and hope, when they face some of life’s toughest decisions, and when they have the least strength to cope.  This is not the end of the bad news: the number and percentage of the elderly will only increase as baby boomers near the end of life; generations are increasingly divided and even scornful of one another; and American churches continue to follow this division, ever increasing in generational homogeneity.  In other words, things may only get worse.  This is not just an ecclesiastical or pastoral problem, but a daunting question of public justice, of improving the dignity afforded to our elderly neighbors.  The wider societal problems find themselves stymied by enormous ethical, medical, and familial obstacles. 

The good news is that Christians have an insatiable hope for change.  But the necessary changes will not be easy.  As young adults, we could realistically go through our entire lives and without ever interacting with an older, struggling person.  Many of us are sheltered from the dying process of grandparents, avoid going to hospitals, and don’t make “friends” with people outside of our own generation.  The seriousness of the struggle and the complex brokenness of the system often becomes urgent only when our own parents begin to face these questions. 

The seriousness of the struggle and the complex brokenness of the system often becomes urgent only when our own parents begin to face these questions.

And the questions are enormous.  They cover practical concerns – where can I live and still receive care? Which home, facility, or organization should I choose?  Do I even have a choice?  How will I pay for my healthcare?  They also encompass deep emotional anxieties - What does it mean me for me to live out my final years in dignity?   How can I live with these new physical restrictions?  How will I make new friends if I move?  How will I handle the death of my spouse, friends, and family?

As Christians we have a rich tradition of caring for the dignity of people at all stages of life.  The approach we take to elder care will begin when we place ourselves in a mindset to care and to sympathize.  Melissa Steffan’s article so beautifully and honestly calls us (young adults) to change our perceptions, to essentially wake up to the reality of this issue. 

As Melissa points out, we need to go beyond changing our thinking.  We must allow our thinking to change our actions.  Changing our perceptions means making personal contact.  It means remembering the elderly people we know.  It means doing real listening.    As with any issue of public justice, the first step is usually awakening to a new way of thinking about a problem.  The next step is to survey our own spheres of influence for ways not only to change the conversation, but also change the system itself. 

We should start asking ourselves:  Where does our sphere of influence make potent contact with this issue?  What habits do I need to develop?  What action can I take?  As we share in this area of public justice let us begin to fight for the vulnerable and demand their dignity against the separation of generations, neglect,  deficiencies in our nursing care facilities, the enormous problems in our healthcare coverage, and the disparity between the rich and the poor at the end of life.  These things are issues that stir our hearts to defend the vulnerable and voiceless.

But that last sentence is misleading.  When we make real contact with real people with real struggles - when we begin to practice the things for which we advocate - we will find that we are not advocating for “issues” and “things” at all.  We are advocating for people.  People stir our hearts. People created in the image of God with fears and hopes and gifts.  And we will find that they are not voiceless – they are human beings with rich stories and rich wisdom. 

Ron and Jean have radically transformed and deepened the care of our seniors at Calvary.  Their effort required months, even years of tears and frustration.  And that is just from the effort required to listen to and pray with a small number of homebound people in a small town in Michigan.  Think of the enormous work ahead of us to transform our national culture of care.  We should expect no less in such a struggle.  But the result at Calvary has been, in a small way, the gift of human dignity.  That, we readily shout, was well worth the tears.  

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.