Sunday, June 12, 2016

Elder Orphans and the Faith Community

Elder orphans—that’s the name being given today to a large and growing number of seniors who have no children close by to care for them as they age.

Some of these people never married. Others married, but had no children. Or they had children, but the kids moved far away.

One of the people doing research in this area is Dr. Maria Carney, chief of geriatric and palliative medicine at Northwell Health in New York.

Through her research, Carney has found that nearly one-quarter of Americans over 65 are currently at risk of becoming elder orphans, and that close to 33 percent of Americans age 45 to 63 are single and positioned to join them.

Something similar could happen in Canada, where about 27 percent of Canadians live alone.

"It seems that, with increasing longevity and the trend toward having fewer children and families being fragmented, that this risk of aging alone is increasing," Carney told CTV's Canada AM last year.

This is clearly a growing challenge. But why raise this issue in a blog about faith?

The reason is simple: One group in Canada which should be well-placed to respond to the needs of seniors is the faith community.

For some faith groups, like Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, this is not as great an issue; adherents of those religions see it as their duty to care for aging parents.

But the same is not necessarily true for Christianity.

That was the point made by Linda Mintle in a post on Beliefnet titled “Are Churches Neglecting the Elderly?”

In the post she recounted how her own aging parents had been left on their own by their church, despite years of the faithful service to the congregation.

“Many churches have become so focused on numbers and youth, that meeting the needs of their senior members are not even on the radar,” she wrote.

Her parents' church has five pastors, but not one of them has pastoral care for seniors in their job description.

“The elderly seem to be forgotten,” she wrote. “And during this time in their lives, when a call or visit would mean so much, the pastors are not taking the time to minister to them.”

It’s not just churches that have made seniors a low priority; a check of courses offered by five major Christian colleges and seminaries in Canada, shows that while they all offer majors in youth ministry, none offer majors in care for seniors.

Earlier this month The Herald, the newspaper serving the northeast part of the city, carried an article about how nine North Kildonan churches have committed themselves to serve their neighbourhoods through a project called The Art of Neighbouring.

I was heartened to learn from a pastor at Jubilee Mennonite Church, one of the congregations involved in the project, that the needs of seniors will be included in the project.

“Seniors will be a focus,” Anna Marie Geddert told me. “We can embrace them, find out who they are and what they need,” she said. “Maybe they need food or groceries, or maybe they are just lonely and need someone to talk to.”

The number of seniors in Canada is growing—people 65 and older are the fastest-growing demographic in the country. At the same time, the number of elder orphans is also increasing.

This means two things: Those who are without children as they age might consider connecting with a faith community. And faith communities looking for ways to make a difference in their neighbourhoods should start taking this issue more seriously.

From the June 11, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press. Image above from Canada AM.

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