The following is condensed from an article by Joyce Mitchell. Now retired, Joyce served as the staff Leadership Development Team team leader for WMU, a one-million member nonprofit organization. She is a graduate of Wayne State University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She remains busy in her retirement, writing, traveling and volunteering.
In 2000, approximately 605 million people in the world were 60 or older. By 2050, that number is expected to be close to 2 billion. At that time, seniors will outnumber children 14 and under for the first time in history.
The information below is designed to guide your launch of a ministry that connects with seniors.
Who are seniors?
Who seniors have been all their lives and how they have dealt with problems before old age will largely determine what they are like after they reach old age. Seniors face a laundry list of “adjustments” as they mature, which may include:
- Children who grow up and leave home
- Death of spouse
- Job relinquished to retirement
- Severed ties with friends due to death or geographical distance
- Loss of status
- Perception of others that they are weak and inferior
- Decrease in alertness or ability to remember
- Physical disabilities
- Chronic brain syndrome and/or Alzheimer’s
- Need for institutional care
Obviously, these serious issues will stimulate questions such as: How can we help seniors maintain an appropriate level of independence? How can we bring comfort and relief to these men and women? How can we share the good news of Jesus Christ with them, whether in health or sickness?
Of course, there have been significant paradigm shifts in how senior adults are viewed within the church. Once, church leaders might have felt the need to focus solely on ministry to senior adults. Today, seniors are known to be significant contributors in ministry to others as well. Who better to lead a ministry to seniors than seniors?
Those who are most successful in working with seniors are often characterized by
- An ability to allow seniors as much independence as possible
- Possessing an optimistic outlook on life
- The ability to listen to what the senior is saying and what the senior means
- The ability to see the positive aspects of aging
- Possessing a degree of comfort in discussing death
- Having time to give on a regular basis
What needs exist in our community?
Community agencies are often the most knowledgeable about seniors. Consider contacting:
- Public welfare department
- Public health department
- Local hospitals
- United Way
- American Red Cross
- Social Security Administration
- County agencies on Aging
- State department of Senior services
- What services does your agency offer?
- Who is eligible for these services?
- What needs do you see that are not being met in the community?
- Do you use volunteers?
- Are there services that you could offer if there were volunteers available?
Also, consider a field trip to a nearby nursing home, observing the activities there and perhaps having a meal with the patients. If there is a day-care center in your community, spend the day there observing and talking with the members. Visit a seniors’ activity meeting sponsored by the recreation department.
Contact other church groups in your community to discover what they are doing for and with senior adults.
A survey of your own church will identify retired persons who might be included in planning for ministering to and with seniors. Tap into skills that they have that might be resources in meeting needs of other senior adults.
Finally, do not overlook informal contacts such as neighbors and elderly members of their families as you seek to discover senior adults and learn about their needs.
What does a plan include?
The scale of your plan should reflect the number of volunteers on your team as well as the resources at your disposal. Plans generally fall into one of several categories:
Person-to-person activities such as visitation are among the most important, least expensive and hardest-to-get services for seniors. Friendly visitors alleviate loneliness and provide meaningful contact in the lives of senior adults. Consider other activities such as
- “adopting” an individual or a couple,
- reading aloud to a senior,
- shopping or running errands,
- writing letters,
- providing transportation,
- being a telephone companion.
Each of these is an expression of caring and Christ’s love.
Nursing home ministries are best conducted in close cooperation with whomever is in charge at the facility. Consider
- onsite Bible study or weekly worship experiences,
- book mobile services,
- special occasion parties,
- providing and playing board games, puzzles or cards.
Often the nursing home staff will have suggestions for activities that are popular with the residents.
Ongoing activities are characterized by the need for cooperation of a group of people.
Typical ministries might include
- barber and beauty services for the homebound,
- handyman referral service,
- onsite Bible classes and small prayer groups,
- homemaker service.
Group activities may occur in small groups, and have the potential for expansion to large group programs. Consider making recreation the focus of the small group.
- Camps and retreat programs,
- Clubs for seniors are of great interest. The club purpose can range from social to informational to demonstrations to trips to nearby points of interest, etc.
Senior Day Care consists of offering a program of activities that meet the needs and desires of senior adults. Such a ministry involves
- Securing space at a church or recreation center for one day each week,
- Enlisting volunteers with special skills to teach those skills.
Counseling senior adults demands availability rather than professional counseling credentials. Valuable to this ministry are
- Familiarity with agencies that can give specific information,
- Willingness to listen and care.
Ministry with seniors is enhanced as those involved grow in their understanding of and commitment to the audience. Following are a few suggested subjects for training.
Psychological Aspects of Senior Adults
- Knutson, Lois D. Understanding the Senior Adult: A Tool for Wholistic Ministry. Baltimore, MD: The Alban Institute, 1999.
- Morgan, Richard L. (ed.) Dimensions of Older Adult Ministry: A Handbook. Louisville: Witherspoon Press, 2006.
Community Services for Seniors
- Invite various speakers from the community based on topic/expertise (such as public assistance for aging, Social Security, Medicare, making a will, adult education for seniors, etc.)
Understanding Social Security and Medicare
- Invite an employee from Social Security office or a public welfare worker who works with the elderly to present information and convene a discussion.
Involving Seniors in the Total Community
- Invite a public health nurse, recreation leader, social worker, several seniors from the community, an employment service representative, etc. as outside experts.
Visiting Nursing Home residents
- Invite an administrator, nurse or social worker from a nursing home to provide information about nursing home culture and needs. Also a family member of a nursing home resident could be a resource person.
Counseling Senior Adults
- Invite a pastor, social worker who works with the aging, or public health nurse who has special interest in the elderly to address this topic.
 From Catch the Wave: A Handbook for Effective Ministry with Senior Adults by Charles Arn and Win Arn, Beacon Hill Press, 1999.