by Susan M. Rothenberg | Presbyterians Today
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issues of Presbyterians Today.
At a time in her life when Joan Hurlock especially needed spiritual and emotional support, she found herself drifting away from her faith community.
Hurlock, a member of Carmichael Presbyterian Church near Sacramento, California, had spent years caring for others as a public health nurse and educator. When Paul, her husband of more than 50 years, became chronically ill, she gradually shifted her focus to caring for him at home. Although well prepared for her role as caregiver, Hurlock felt overwhelmed and overburdened. But not wanting to leave her husband alone, she spent less and less time at church.
After her husband died, Hurlock asked herself, “With the strength and knowledge I have, what can I do to serve?” She sensed that the answer involved helping faith communities support caregivers in their midst. So with Hurlock’s leadership, plus support from Sacramento Presbytery Presbyterian Women and a grant from the Synod of the Pacific, Carmichael launched a Care Visitor ministry for caregivers in the congregation.
Carmichael’s program is just one way that Presbyterian congregations are finding innovative ways to address the needs and interests of their retirement-age members. Those members make up a significant part of Presbyterian congregations. In 2014 the median age in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was 63, according to the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN). And considering that today’s older adult population is healthier, has more resources, and is expected to live longer than past generations, the challenge and opportunities for congregations are unlimited.
A ‘fast-growing reality’
At Carmichael Presbyterian, training is a key part of the Care Vision ministry. In partnership with a consultant in gerontology and caregiving services, the Care Visitor team has developed a training program that addresses such details as listening techniques, maintaining confidentiality, adapting to caregivers’ changing needs, promoting wholeness in practical ways, engaging in prayer, and strengthening church connections. Each Care Visitor volunteer commits to visiting an assigned caregiver for one hour each month for a minimum of 12 months. Carmichael’s leadership team also has created a training manual for churches interested in establishing their own Care Visitor ministry.
Hurlock often quotes First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” Carmichael’s associate pastor, Rev. Ivan Herman, agrees, saying, “We don’t talk about family caregiving much in the church, yet it is a fast-growing reality. Caregivers can so easily lose the spiritual support of faith communities unless we intentionally seek to connect with and support them. Our Care Visitors take church to the caregiver.”
Staying intellectually engaged
In Pittsburgh a program at Southminster Presbyterian Church helps older adults stay intellectually active. Every Friday morning., a few dozen older men and women arrive at Southminster’s spacious fellowship hall for an Adult Interest Center (AIC) program. Chatter and laughter fill the air as people sip coffee and catch up with their friends. Promptly at 11:00 a.m. the attendees settle into their chairs to listen to the day’s speaker.
On a recent Friday the speaker discussed the benefits of friendship and encouraged the group members to establish “five essential friendships” to stay connected and involved in life. Afterwards, the participants gathered for a hearty lunch and engaged in a lively conversation about the value of friendships.
“We want to provide intellectually stimulating programs at AIC,” said Carla Campbell, who coordinates the ministry and serves as the part-time stated clerk for Pittsburgh Presbytery. She pointed to a schedule of speakers that includes a retired chairperson of a university’s political science department who will talk about the rising threat of the radical right in Europe, as well as an interior decorator who once decorated the White House for Christmas.
Campbell said she appreciates the deep relationships that develop at AIC. The only challenge, she said, is finding speakers and activities to continue capturing the imagination of such a lively, intelligent group.
Outings and outreach
At Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, members can participate in a variety of activities coordinated by the church’s older adult ministry, dubbed the Golden Charmers. As one participant, Bettye Dixie, whimsically explains, the group is open to “everyone who’s golden and wants to be charming.”
The group participates in a trip or other activity each month, and the schedule ranges from fun-filled outings to community service. Recent outings have included a trip to Nashville to see the Rockettes and a tour of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, followed by lunch at a nearby restaurant.
When they are not hitting the open road, the Golden Charmers find ways to connect with others. They recently sponsored a workshop in which teenagers from the congregation taught the older members how to use technology like texting, social media, and Skype to stay in touch with far-flung children and grandchildren. Golden Charmers also engage in outreach ministry, volunteering as tutors at a local elementary school and providing food to the homeless and hungry through the church’s food distribution program. They also make monetary donations to charities and provide transportation for the sick and needy.
Focus on fitness
Many older adult ministries include fitness programs, offering everything from yoga to weight training. One such program takes place at Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
“We come because we are sure we need that muscle work against aging,” said Joan Dayton, who attends the strength training class three times a week when she is not traveling around the country to see grandchildren. “It supports the larger mission of the church because we concern ourselves with what’s going on in the congregation. We don’t gossip, though. The time flies because we are talking all the time—politics, health needs, our families, and so on.”
The strength training class was launched 18 years ago by a nurse. Anne Williams, who drives elderly members to church on Sundays and does lots of volunteer hospice work in Nashville, remembers when she started attending the class 16 years ago.
“It definitely has to be a habit,” she said. “We range in age from 70 to 90 to 103. Although the exercise doesn’t ward off old age, I don’t know how pitiful we’d look or feel without its regularity!”
A legacy to build on
Older adults at Grosse Ile Presbyterian Church in Grosse Ile, Michigan, are benefiting from the vision of Anne York. York, a retired schoolteacher and member of the congregation, was concerned about the lack of programming for older adults in the church. When she died, she left a bequest earmarked for older adult ministry. With the support of POAMN, the York Connection was established at Grosse Ile Presbyterian. Today, through the York Connection, the church offers a range of activities for older adults, including weekly yoga classes and a monthly movie. Special programs have covered safe driving, home safety, and other topics.
“We realized that while our older members still had talents and even more time to offer the church, many had grown weary of teaching Sunday school or being an elder or deacon,” said Kathleen Rankin, one of program’s leaders. “They wanted opportunities to learn, to socialize, and to enjoy the ‘third 30’ stage of life—age 60 to 90-plus.”
In addition to social groups for men (The Coney Boys) and women (JULIETs—Just Us Ladies Interested in an Event Together), the York Connection offers opportunities for older adults to share their life stories and wisdom with their families as well as with the whole faith community. Recently the older adults took part in a Life File project that helped them document the important details of their lives for future use of their family members. From finances to funeral preferences, each completed Life File provided a comprehensive picture of that participant.
Another York Connection project, the Legacy Project, involved interviewing members over the age of 80. The interviews were transcribed and published for the whole congregation to read.
“These stories really helped all of us to rethink how we see older adults,” said Rankin. “We forget they are people who have lived rich, full, and fascinating lives and still have so much to teach us.”
For more information about resources available from the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministry Network, visit the network’s website: poamn.org.
Susan M. Rothenberg is an at-large member of Pittsburgh Presbytery and currently serves on the presbytery’s Commission on Ministry. Prior to entering ordained ministry, she worked in marketing, advertising, and public relations for companies in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
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