By Michelle Brenneman
Beatlemania. John F. Kennedy. Vietnam. Martin Luther King. Apollo 11. Woodstock.
These touchstones of North American culture have shaped the lives and values of one of its most legendary generations: baby boomers. Born just after World War II, between 1946 and 1962, boomers comprise about 20 percent of the population in the U.S. and Canada.
Over the course of their lifetimes, boomers have redefined everything from gender roles and economics to music and politics. Now, the same generation that loudly transitioned to adulthood in the 1960s and early ’70s is under-going another significant life change: In January 2011, the first baby boomers will turn 65.
By 2017, for the first time in our history, older adults will account for a larger share of the population in North America than children aged 0–14. This will impact healthcare, housing, pension plans, social services . . . and the Church.
As Brethren in Christ, we affirm our commitment to providing “an active and loving witness to all people”—this certainly includes everyone from the hour-old infant to the centenarian. In the coming years, as the boomer generation causes a major swing in the makeup of North American society, we have a new opportunity to ask key questions about our ministry: How do we knit together demographics and our commitment to a witness that embraces all ages and stages? What might it look like to reach out to this particular growing group of seekers?
More than a marketing or funding question, we must wrestle with what an aging population will mean for the ministry and mission of the Church.
The times, they are a-changin'
Since Dave retired six months ago, he has finished those half-done projects around the house, taken that trip he promised his wife, Anne, and brushed up on his golf game. What exactly am I supposed to do now? he wonders sitting at the breakfast table as Anne texts their grandson to find out how his first game of the season went. She often communicated with him this way, grateful for how technology connected her to far-flung family. Who imagined that they could learn more about his life in a single text than during an entire face-to-face visit?
For the 78 million baby boomers in North America, the road ahead is largely uncharted territory. While science has not halted the aging process completely, advances in medicine and technology mean that we are leading longer, healthier lives than previous generations. At the same time, urbanization and increased mobility have resulted in families living farther apart and weakened our expectations of community.
Complicating these shifts in cultural landscape is the reality that late adulthood is the least homogeneous of all age groups. Older adults exhibit great diversity in health, physical and cognitive capacity, financial security, activity levels, social connections, and worldview.
Having watched their own parents navigate old age, baby boomers are looking ahead to their own futures, and many are becoming conscious of a disconnect between the expectations they hold and the realities they face. While some eagerly anticipate the opportunities retirement will offer, others feel anxious about the limitations it might present. And while some welcome the changes and transitions that come with growing older, others are searching for ways to maintain the status quo. The generation known for pioneering new frontiers is again facing uncharted territory.
Discrimination against older adults
At the same time, the general attitude toward aging in North America is informed by our fear of death and dying, our definition of beauty, the value we place on independence and self-sufficiency, and the ways we define success and purpose. These views subtly influence assumptions, even within the Church, and can lead us to draw sweeping conclusions about the abilities, interests, and desires of older adults.
Living out these stereotypes may at times lead us to minimize the concerns and losses that occur in this stage of life, make false correlations between physical abilities and intellectual competency, or use our power to do what we “know” is best for an older capable adult, despite their wishes. When negative or misguided assumptions about aging shape our actions, the resulting discrimination is commonly known as ageism.
The Church today is embedded in a culture that devalues and excludes older adults. As a result, our first efforts must be in acknowledging where the Church has lost its distinctiveness and adopted values followed by society.
We can begin by examining the assumptions the Church makes about the spiritual and relational needs of older adults and the purpose and place of older adults in our faith community. Once we become attuned to ways the larger culture has negatively influenced our thinking, we can get down to the work of building relationships, founded on the intentional and generous work of understanding the “other.”
The role of the Church
Laura thinks of Sunday morning and sighs. She’s starting to feel a bit like wallpaper—wallpaper that is supposed to smile and serve quietly in the background. That, and give generously to keep the ministries of the Church going. “Move over and let the young people take charge,” is the message. Not that she doesn’t recognize the need to make space for other generations to dream and do, but where does she fit in?
Like Laura, some older adults may struggle to reconcile the expectations of the Church with their own needs and desires for meaningful ministry. Humanitarian Jean Vanier speaks into this question when he says, “For me, the message of the Gospel is that each one of us has a gift to give; each one is precious; each one needs to be loved and to belong.”
As is true for people in all age groups, older adults need supportive relationships, space to remain an integral part of church life through an array of ministry contributions, and room to figure out how to live out their faith, even as health and strength may begin to decline.
It might be tempting to assume older adults have fewer spiritual needs than younger generations and that what they need from their faith community is a mix of spiritual maintenance and social activities. An aging population facing the uncertainty of an unknown future longs for the hope and assurance faith provides just as much its younger counterparts.
With this in mind, the Church must discover how to provide opportunities for transformation and discipleship for all ages. In working to treasure those across generations, in creating space for each one to use his or her gifts, and in nurturing an inclusive family in which everyone feels they can belong, the Church bears witness to a more compassionate, scriptural understanding of aging and community.
Evaluating life, healing wounds
One way the Church can accomplish this is by creating ways to support people as they name and wrestle with the social and emotional issues of aging.
Life review and repair are both necessary tasks of growing older. We all want to leave a legacy, but as we get closer to the end of life, aspiring turns to assessing, and we take stock of what we will or will not be leaving behind. The process of reflecting, accepting, and releasing what we discover is ground ripe for spiritual growth and transformation.
Moreover, during the busy years of work and family, it is possible to put aside some of the wounds and trauma we experience. But they don’t just disappear, and as we age, our bodies remind us that there are valleys we need to walk through in order to heal. Doing the hard work of forgiving others and ourselves requires support and care, vital roles the Church can fill.
Finding identity amidst change
At this stage in life, it seems everyone assumes he has it all together—that 60+ years of Sunday school and Bible reading mean that his faith has arrived at that elusive place of maturity, that loss is less of a blow, that wisdom and experience prohibit doubt and despair. But the truth is that the ground under his feet feels like it is constantly shifting.
Bill used to know who he was: a son, husband, father, employee, friend. Now, after spending a lifetime of investing in these roles, the kids have grown up and moved out, parents have passed away, retirement has come, and marriage roles have shifted and changed. Who am I? Bill wonders. He thought he’d settled that question decades ago. How do people who are supposed to have it all together find a way to talk about this?
Just as aging causes us to evaluate our past, it also poses new questions for our future. The loss or redefinition of identity markers—mother, father, son, daughter, teacher, carpenter, husband, wife, etc.—forces us to reconsider who we are and, consequently, our purpose and meaning in life. What gifts do we have to share? And how do we share them when our health begins to fail or we don’t live near our family or our friends begin to pass away? What gives meaning to our days?
Holistic spiritual care must acknowledge the losses and support people in this journey of figuring out who we are, especially in our later years as we face potential changes in roles and routine.
Cultivating close relationships with the older adults in our congregations nurtures a stronger community and shapes everyone’s faith journey. The older adults among us can tell the faith stories of those who have gone before us, helping us to better understand and appreciate who we are as the Church. Similarly, we all learn from the victories and struggles of others, so as older adults work through their faith questions in community or provide mentorship and support to younger people, they can speak into the ongoing process of faith formation of all.
Older adults also thrive when welcomed as vital members of a community. Even as they share their life experiences and wisdom with others, they gain energy and inspiration from younger people. Members of new generations encourage those of older ones by showing how the previous generation’s efforts laid the foundation of the work being done today.
A mosaic community
Intergenerational community is hard to find in our culture, but it shouldn’t be hard to find in our churches. As a family of faith, we affirm our commitment to embrace people of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, marital statuses, mental and physical abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and we recognize that everyone is equally in need of Christ’s redeeming love and grace. Using this as a starting point, we need to shape our ministries to serve children, teens, college students, young adults, families, middle-age adults, and older adults at their distinct points of need.
Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr has said, “How I do anything is how I do everything.” From this perspective, the way the Church serves older adults—or any group—is a window into its beliefs about diversity and the possibility of living in peace with others. Being an active and loving witness to an aging population may perhaps seem like a small example of our love for all people, but how we treat each other when differences are small often reveals how we’ll respond when the differences seem great.
As a new generation stands at the threshold of older adulthood, we have the opportunity to engage questions about our role as the Church. Setting aside stereotypes, prejudices, society’s biases, and our own visions of what the Church should look like, we must embrace the body that God has called us to become. May we engage with this opportunity as part of our communal faith formation, exploring what it might mean to be the body of Christ in an aging society.