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Congregations develop programs for seniors

What Unitarian Universalist congregations can do to make churches friendlier places for seniors.
By Donald E. Skinner
Winter 2008 11.1.08

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Doris Haskell, 81, has been a Unitarian for more than fifty years and in that time she has been a member of several congregations. When her husband died three years ago she joined her current congregation, Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, California. The former nurse educator quickly became part of a Wednesday morning covenant group and found it to be what she needed to continue to work through her grief. “The group has been very helpful emotionally as well as intellectually stimulating for me,” she said. “It’s a safe place to talk about what’s happening in my life.” Haskell is also on the membership committee, is a Sunday morning greeter, and is a member of a committee that oversees the congregation’s shared ministry program.

“My world was coming apart when I came here,” Haskell said. “This church was what I needed. I wanted to be with people I felt attuned with and be part of Sunday services that gave me something to think about.”

Congregations put a lot of effort into attracting and ministering to young people and middle-agers, but often not as much attention is paid to the folks at the other end of the age spectrum. But this is beginning to change

At first glance, older members don’t seem to need as much attention as other groups. They know how things are done, they know who to ask for help, they may have been coming for years, and they know the routine. But they’ve also entered a stage in life where they may be experiencing physical or mental difficulties.

First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, had a wakeup call in the late eighties. The congregation was growing rapidly and some of the older members were unhappy about the changes. They felt like strangers at coffee hour and left out of decision-making. The congregation and senior staff called in the Rev. Becky Blodgett to survey the congregation. Using the survey results, she founded a pastoral care ministry at First Parish, focusing on the emotional and spiritual needs of parishioners, including a large number of older members. “It’s really made a big difference,” Blodgett said.

The ministry developed a pastoral visiting team of volunteers who focused mainly on older members who couldn’t get to church. A second volunteer group began reaching out to people of any age with serious illnesses. Beyond that, the ministry created several smaller programs for older folks, providing places for them to talk about the challenges and joys of aging and to help them prepare for the ends of their lives.

Blodgett is no longer on the congregation’s staff. The current associate minister for pastoral care is the Rev. Margie King Saphier. Ministering to the elderly, she said, doesn’t mean solving their problems. “The role of a minister is to show people the options and be a compassionate presence and let them make up their own minds.” Under her direction the congregation has hosted forums on a variety of issues affecting people as they age. Youth religious education classes invited older folks to come and talk about what they’d done in their lives.

“We try to foster any contact we can between older and younger people,” said King Saphier. First Parish also has an “extended family” program, where groups of members come together for social activities. King Saphier is planning a program on the “sandwich generation,” for people caring for children as well as parents.

When the Rev. Walt Wieder was called to the UU Church of Surprise, Arizona, in 1996, it was comprised almost entirely of people 55 and older because of its location in an age-restricted retirement community. Then a few years ago the congregation decided to move—and build—so that it could be open to all age groups. They started a religious education program for children and youth three years ago, and the older members have enthusiastically supported it, said Wieder.

Older members have a strong commitment to the church, he said. “Time and again they made significant contributions to our building project knowing some of them would never live to see it completed. And without these folks we’d lose a wealth of experience not only of church life but life in general.”

Lenore Gaudin, 75, is a member of the pastoral care committee at Surprise. She said it can be challenging to keep track of members, especially those who come infrequently or quietly drop out because of illness. The committee has a system to track people. A committee member, Toni Wells, sits in the back on Sunday morning and takes note of those who are not there and others who may need assistance. “We don’t want people to just drop out,” said Gaudin. Wells also plans and holds parties for members who reach the age of 90. “We research their histories and invite the congregation and make a presentation,” said Gaudin. “These are really special moments that the congregation looks forward to.”

The Rev. Dr. Devorah Greenstein, the UUA’s program coordinator for accessibility concerns, helps congregations minister to their oldest members. “We always talk about how we’re an oasis of safety for our children—a place where they can speak openly. It’s the same for elders,” said Greenstein. “One woman told me before the Iraq war there was no place but church where she could speak openly about her feelings. ”

Too often, she said, older people simply drop out. “They develop a hearing problem or have to use a walker and they can’t hear the sermon and they’re afraid of being knocked down by children. But they don’t like to complain, so no one notices they’re gone.”

Greenstein said hearing loss is the biggest reason that elders drop out—that, and losing the ability to drive. There are many things congregations can do to make churches safer and friendlier places for seniors, she said. They include painting white stripes along the edge of sidewalks and steps, putting a bench in the parking lot to break up the long walk to the front door, cautioning children to be mindful of people using canes and walkers, having large-print orders of service, and being familiar with assistive listening devices.

Wieder said he is continually gratified by how members of his congregation care for and watch out for elders. “One thing that happens again and again is that someone using a walker will take a while to get to a microphone. Other people are patient knowing that someday that could be them. We have a constant stream of people who are experiencing a narrowing of their world because of age, but who are steadfastly looking to the future of the church. They’re willing to invest in a world they won’t participate in, but still care about. I’m buoyed and amazed and proud of that congregation.”

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