In an effort to answer the demand for practical steps by which the church can demonstrate its essential witness-bearing love for one another, there is perhaps no greater opportunity emerging than that of caring for the aging saints.
As Tertullian wrote roughly 1,800 years ago, "it is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. " Such loving kindness expresses a distinct characteristic of Christ's kingdom come into the world. What better opportunity to demonstrate how this new life in Christ has transformed us-reorienting our priorities away from self to others-than by how we care for the aging within the community of God's people?
In Paul's letter to Timothy, he stresses this responsibility toward the elderly and widows in particular. Paul goes so far as to say that anyone who does not provide accordingly for his own family is guilty of denying the faith and worse than an unbeliever (cf. 1 Timothy 5:8). So such care is not merely a nice option if it's convenient or affordable but a serious and universal command.
In the decades to come, more Americans will enter the ranks of the elderly than ever before in history. The oldest baby boomers turned sixty in 2006, and when the trend peaks in 2030, the number of people over age 65 will soar to 71.5 million-one in every five Americans. This is twice the number in 2000, according to "The Maturing of America: Getting Communities on Track for an Aging Population," published by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. The Census Bureau predicts the nation will have more than 1 million centenarians (100-year-olds) in 2050, up from 71,000 today!
Given the disproportionately aging population, the impact will be enormous and the resources needed to meet the needs of this generation will almost surely be inadequate. According to a USA Today report, "The cost of health care and retirement benefits of an aging population threatens to bankrupt the nation unless dramatic changes are made" (Dennis Cauchon, "Who will take care of an older population?" USA TODAY, 10/24/2005). Prior to the recent financial collapse it was noted that "the average American retires five years earlier than in 1950 and lives 12 years longer. This phenomenon-work less, collect more-has ripped a hole in the senior citizen safety net" (Cauchon). Subsequent to the financial crisis, many seniors may not be retiring as early, however their retirement savings are likely worth much less.
According to the Maturing of America study cited above, there are a multitude of needs that are as yet unmet within many communities. Such as:
In one-third of the U.S. communities surveyed, older adults do not have access to a range of needed preventive health care services, such as health education, community-based health screenings, and counseling about prescription drug programs.
More than one-third of communities do not have fitness programs for older adults.
Only 56 percent reported having "dial a ride" or door-to-door transportation services.
Only half of the communities reported having home modification programs helping older adults adapt existing homes for physical limitations.
Over 40 percent of U.S. communities do not offer formal job training and retraining programs to help older adults remain in the workforce.
Suffice it to say, the timing could not be better for the church to begin preparing for this social reality in a way that speaks loudly to a watching world.
Could churches build and manage assisted living facilities, retirement centers, and nursing homes for their members? Some churches and denominations actually do and some have been in existence since the 1800s. Consider the benefit of having such facilities on the grounds of the church. Elder members could remain actively involved in their Christian community. Additional activities could engage youth in the church in order to foster the transmission of intergenerational wisdom and teaching compassion. Aging brothers and sisters could live out their final years with their church family-in a loving, Christ-centered community-with whom they have longtime relationships.
Smaller independent churches could partner with others in their community to accomplish the same ends, pooling their resources to build and maintain such facilities and services.
Immediately, churches could begin organizing teams dedicated to retrofitting homes of the aging who are still able to live independently but whose homes may need modification or general household maintenance. Wouldn't it be a great blessing to remain in your own home as long as possible?
Loneliness, depression, and isolation are enormous problems among the elderly. The church could organize additional teams within the church to insure that their homebound seniors are visited, invited into other homes for dinner, and participate in other family activities-adopted, as it were, into other families within the church. Every day in the United States, seventeen desperately lonely adults over the age of 65 commit suicide-the highest suicide rate of any demographic group. Many could be prevented with a minimum of attention from their church families. These same families could also see to many of the daily needs of these seniors, as they would their own parents.
Many seniors struggle financially, a condition that should never exist within the body of Christ. Currently, 3.4 million seniors age 65 and older live below the poverty line. Millions more are barely making ends meet just above the poverty line. If Social Security benefits did not exist, an estimated 44 percent of the elderly would be poor today, assuming no changes in behavior. Do any of us really believe that Social Security will be able to meet the future needs of our burgeoning elderly population, assuming it will even exist in 25 years? Might we, like the early church, see to it that there is not a need among us (see Acts 4:34)?
Churches could provide educational seminars to help the elderly manage the labyrinth of health care, drug prescriptions, financial management, and a host of other essential issues. Think of the diverse talent and expertise within the church that could be brought to bear on the multitudinous issues confronting the elderly. Could the body of Christ so care for its aging members that even those opposed to the gospel might say, "Look how they love one another…"? I think yes-and I would say that such love and care is not only essential to letting the world know whose disciples we really are but also essential to living in obedience to the King.