Aging with grace: faith during the stages of life

As social media has started to give people a glimpse into the highlight reel of other people’s lives and the fear of missing out has seen a steady increase in millennials and Generation Z, another age group has shown an increase of loneliness in recent years.

People ages 65 and older make up 12 percent of the population in the United States, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Twenty-seven percent of those 65 and older live alone, according to U.S. News. Some advocates for that age bracket have started referring to them as “elder orphans.” Five percent of the 65 and over population occupy nursing homes, according the the U.S. Census, and for those who live in nursing homes, 60 percent of them will never receive a visitor, according to the Atlantic Journal Constitution.

Michelle Satterlee, assistant professor of psychology at John Brown University, said that elderly individuals tend to fear dependency and isolation. “They worry about the harm they may impose on loved ones either emotionally or financially. They also tend to worry about the isolation of being left alone in the case that they outlive many of their loved ones or have to move away from their community to receive family care.” Satterlee said.

“I do think they may often face the loss of the religious community, and we know that community aspect of faith is an important protective factor for aging well,” Satterlee said. “The amount of social contact, activities, sense of generativity (investing in later generations) is deeply important to meaning-making and overall wellness. Loss of connection does seem to be a pretty significant fear and a troubling part of aging for many; yet, they still seem to find ways to stay vitally connected to faith and their spiritual identities.”

Eric Bryan, pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Tulsa, Okla., said his father died in December and his mother is currently battling dementia. He feels very close to the tension that comes from aging and still desiring a church community. “As far as the church is concerned,” he said, “every person is unique. Certainly, there are those seniors I have been in contact with who have had strong and clear and cognitive processing of their faith right up until the end. There are others on the other spectrum who get to the end of life and become pretty introspective and begin to have regrets and have fears about the security of their salvation,” Bryan continued. “In both cases, I go back to the core of the faith with people and talk about why God is dependable. His purposes, though not all clear to us, are good, for our good and for his glory. The great news of the gospel is that it never depended on us.”

Bryan said his dad spoke about feeling the loss of church community as he aged, even though he had been a pastor vocationally his whole adult life. “When we had to move [my parents] from home to an assisted living facility, pretty much their church attendance ended. There was no way to go and gather with other believers in a local church because of their ability to get there … He [felt] lonely and disconnected.”

Jennifer L. Brower, a minister at a Universalist congregation in California who has worked extensively with older adults, said she has seen faith and religion as a way in which older adults find happiness. “If someone has been a regular participant in a religious community,” Brower says that you should find “any way to keep them connected by getting them there. Having them there at worship helps us maintain that connection and relationship,” she said.

“We’re bound together in whatever religious group or congregation we’re part of, which truthfully could be said of any community, whether it’s based on a religious creed, culture or commitment to common purpose,” Brower said.

Madeline Huisjen, junior family and human services major and former leader of the nursing home CAUSE ministry, said JBU students should get more involved in caring for the aging community and breaking societal boundaries: “Go spend face to face time with them and say that you’re worth this to me, you’re worth something to society. [One woman’s] husband died in the last year. Who’s been processing that with her? Her daughter now has cancer for the second time. She talks to me about that. Who else would she talk to? It’s really not that hard. It just takes the time and effort.”

Satterlee said she believes churches should connect with aging members and reach out to those who might not be Christians. “For some, diminished cognitive ability or limited language capabilities makes touch and social inclusion even more important. These are means through which God’s goodness and our need can be revealed. Others are actively wrestling with the meaning-making of later life … and these are prime opportunities for thoughtful listening and discipleship,” Satterlee said. “Again, based on the research, older adults tend to seek ways to affirm their life choices and look back positively on the identities they’ve held dear — family roles, ethnicity or culture, religion, etc. That might mean they are less likely to embrace a radically new sense of identity through a religious affiliation, but if a community or individual of faith can help them make sense of the identity and experiences they’ve already had, they can be very open and motivated.”

The best way to reach the aging community, Bryan said, is to “Show up, loving them, listening, caring: lovingly proclaim [the gospel] and pray and ask God to do a work in whatever way he is going to do it. If I am going in and trying to ramrod a gospel message to someone who doesn’t believe, it is going to come off as a mercenary act. It has to be a relationship.”