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Photo by Jeff Fisher

(From left) Ed Schellhaas, Gary Brand, Clancy Biegler, and Charles Barker, all members of Trinity United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, traveled to Washington as part of Honor Flight. Biegler was among the veterans on the flight; Brands, Schellhaas and Barker traveled as guardians.

Ministries make sure older adults feel valued

By Tita Parham
This story was originally published in Interpreter Magazine.

Gary Brand's advice to churches with older adult ministries is simple: Do what you do best.

He bases that on 13 years of experience as director of older adult ministries at Trinity United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, and what he sees happening at nearby churches. Three have directors like him, but their approaches to ministry vary.

"Each of us has a different job description based upon our strengths and graces; we each do different things," Brand says. "If it works, go and do it."

What works for Trinity, he says, is making sure its "member-saints" -- church members who can no longer participate on a regular or short-term basis -- "have regular contact with the activities at Trinity."

That is important in a church with 400 members older than 65 and 130 older than 80. Average worship attendance is 830, with online attendance around 130.

Trinity's Keeping In Touch (KIT) ministries are key to that goal. Through KIT, staff and church members regularly communicate with older senior members through mail, email and visits.

Each week, member-saints receive a newsletter, the next Sunday's sermon plans and bulletin, a list of upcoming activities, and a puzzle and devotional from a subscription-based service called Home Touch Ministry. Birthday cards are also sent to those older than 80; sympathy cards are sent when a family member dies and a year later.

The face-to-face contact is most important, Brand says, and a book by Dr. William H. Thomas called What Are Old People For? (Vanderwyk and Burnham) explains why.

In it, Thomas describes the long-term care system as an older adult archipelago -- an isolated chain or group of islands.

"If you visit any nursing home and walk its halls, you will get a glimpse of what that means," Brand says. "People sitting in quiet desperation for human contact. Some may even reach out to take your hand -- or your garment -- and not let go, with a grip of iron."

It is a reality many older adults face. "It has been my experience that even families of (residents in) nursing centers and assisted living centers stop visiting after a while," Brand says.

That is why Trinity has made weekly, in-person connections a priority.

Brand and the church's pastors and members visit member-saints in their homes, retirement campuses, and nursing and assisted living centers. They deliver palm crosses on Palm Sunday, flowers on Easter and poinsettias during Christmastime. Children in the church create Valentine's Day and Easter cards; the middle school youth deliver the Easter cards and spring flowers. Members and clergy also serve Communion, deliver CDs of the worship services and offer worship, Bible studies and fellowship lunches at retirement centers.

"Member-saints are and have been the backbone of any church," Brand says. "It would be tragic to ignore them."

Bible study and crafts for senior adults at First United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, provide learning and enjoyment. Photo courtesy First United Methodist Church.

The congregation of First United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, is making sure they don't ignore another group of older adults.

"Our low-income senior adults have almost been forgotten, and that is what we've really geared our mission action toward," says Anita Woolsey, director of adult education and senior adult ministries.

The 2,000-member church is located in downtown Corpus Christi, an area with many low-income residents and a significant homeless population, Woolsey notes.

One ministry focused on that demographic is Seniors Assisting Seniors (SAS), which provides vouchers to doctors and vendors for eye and dental exams, glasses, shoes and minor home repairs.

Although participants must show proof of age and income, the services are free to anyone older than 60 and with an income of less than $1,300 a month. "It's amazing how many of them live on $800 a month," Woolsey says.

An initial grant from a church family helped start the ministry. CVS Pharmacy and the Coastal Bend Foundation provide additional funding. Because senior adult volunteers coordinate the ministry, Woolsey says, 100 percent of the funds provide services.

OASIS at First United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi provides respite for caregivers and socialization for people with Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia. Photo courtesy First United Methodist Church.

There is also the grant-funded OASIS, a weekly time of respite for caregivers of family members with Alzheimer's disease and other dementia, and Bags of Blessings, which provides toiletries, hygiene items, detergent and paper products to seniors living on limited incomes. Church members receive the bags on their birthday, but Woolsey says so many are given that anyone helped through SAS can receive a bag twice a year.

The ministry also provides clothes for residents of a local nursing home, food for the local food pantry, fans in the summer for seniors without air-conditioning, and shoes, glasses and other items for residents of a downtown senior adult high-rise that Woolsey said was unknown to the church until recently.

Woolsey says the ministry's overarching purpose is meeting seniors' needs, whether they are members or not.

"This is something that has been hard to identify in the last few years because older adults are living longer and married couples tend to be more active in their 60s and early 70s than ever before," Woolsey says. "So although we have what I consider a younger age to identify senior adults, it's hard to get that group involved because ... they're still engaged in different things."

In addition, many do not think of themselves as older adults. "The longer we live, the higher the age will be for someone to admit they are a senior adult," she explains.

The goal is to provide a variety of ministries that engage younger seniors, Woolsey says, so they feel comfortable connecting "when they get to those years that they need to be involved."

Assembling Christmas baskets is one of the ways First United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi is in ministry with senior adults in the church and community who are living on lower incomes. Photo courtesy First United Methodist Church.

A fourth of the church's membership is older than 60, and Woolsey estimates 300 to 400 seniors -- a quarter of which are non-members -- participate in some way.

That participation takes many forms. Beyond services that help shut-ins stay connected, the ministry offers Bible study three times a month, both day and extended travel opportunities, and an exercise class that meets three mornings a week.

Seniors also help lead worship two months a year and make blankets for children in the church's day care and at a nearby children's hospital and elementary school.

All ministries are open to the community at no charge, and grants, plus an annual fundraiser, provide the necessary resources.

"By being active within these areas, they stay active within the church; they stay on committees; they stay being a vital part of what is going on," Woolsey says.

That, she says, is one of the most important things older adult ministries should do.

"They need to be providing a way for (seniors) to feel vital and needed and connected with a church in a way that doesn't identify them so much as a senior adult because being a senior adult for some people makes them feel old," Woolsey says. "So it has to be something that makes them feel they are really contributing.

"You have to have a reason to get up and get dressed and get out of the house every day," she adds. "And that's what we offer."

*Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.

Read more about developing ministries with older adults ...

These books from The Upper Room, bookstore.upperroom.org, can be helpful in developing ministries with older adults.

Safe Sanctuaries: The Church Responds to Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of Older Adults, Joy Thornburg Melton.

Aging and Ministry in the 21st Century: An Inquiry Approach, Richard H. Gentzler Jr.

Designing an Older Adult Ministry, Richard H. Gentzler Jr.