A Senior Moment
The ratio between young and old is changing, and soon the whole world will look like Florida," observed journalist Gavin du Venage last year. He's right. A drop in infant mortality, eradication of certain diseases, better medical care, and healthier diets all have helped boost longevity in the developed West to record levels. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.8 percent of the population is 75 or older, and 1.5 percent (5 million) is 85 or older—the fastest-growing demographic segment.
There are myriad examples of people living on their own into their 90s and functioning well. But virtually all who live long enough will need help at the end of their lives, whether through the physical assistance of family or a health care provider. If a person lives into the late 80s or early 90s, he or she will likely live in an assisted living facility, skilled-nursing center, or long-term care facility. And, of course, there is no guarantee that those extra years are going to be pleasant and pain-free. Contrary to rosy propaganda, 85 is not the new 65.
The elder population boom will affect everyone, and the church has an important role to play. In understanding the situation and what areas need improvement, congregations learn that they too benefit when they are involved in supporting the frail elderly.
Assisting the Caregivers
Octogenarian Luella "Blue" Koelling gradually required more attention in her Sullivan, Missouri, home from her 64-year-old daughter, Christine Williams. For two years, Williams paid for 24-hour private care during the week, usually from people she knew from church, the First Assembly of God. Typically two parishioners worked 12-hour shifts each day. Williams often dropped by before and after work to hear about new pains her mother wanted to talk about. There was always a new malady.
"Mother really enjoyed the attention," says Williams. "She would get irritated if I visited only once a day."
It was difficult to find caretakers for weekends, so Williams would stay at her mother's home from Friday evening through Sunday evening.
With old age, Koelling's medical problems—Parkinson's disease, osteoarthritis, knee replacements—piled up. She had spinal surgery two years ago, shoulder surgery last year, and a stroke this year. She could no longer stand up without assistance or cut her own food. "I felt no resentment," Williams says about caring for her mother while balancing other daily tasks. "The hardest thing was I felt like I should be with my husband a lot."
When a parent reaches 85, it usually falls to the children to make decisions on where the parent will dwell during that sometimes long, gradual decline. Determining how to care for loved ones can create a considerable amount of distress for family members.
According to the 2009 report Caregiving in the U.S., 43.5 million (19 percent of the population) are involved in caring for an older adult (someone 50 or older). Only 10 percent of the time does a son handle home care; it is nearly always a daughter, granddaughter, or niece who assumes the role.
However, an unpaid relative quickly faces burnout if daily tasks include helping one get dressed, bathed, and fed. Add shopping, housekeeping, and laundering, and the experience can stress or even harm the health of the caregiver—especially if the person is in the workforce full-time or still raising children.
A whole new industry has developed to assist adult children caring for homebound parents. Warren Heard, a member of the home-care business for 39 years, says the aged overwhelmingly prefer to remain in their residence as long as possible because of the familiar surroundings. Placing a person with decreasing mobility and memory in a facility can cause confusion, anxiety, and fear.