He sits in his chair and just looks out into space. He sees what is happening in the room, and when someone speaks to him he answers. But the old spark of interest is gone. He confessed to me that he has difficulty in following my conversation. He loves Christ and the Church and spent half a century in the ministry, but now even this seems to be of only passing interest. Radio and television mean nothing to him. He seems very lonely.
This man, my father, is only eighty-six. (I say “only” because with each passing year thousands more people are living beyond that age.) When the pastor comes to call on him, how shall he deal with him? Every pastor faces this challenge of ministering to elderly people.
A few years ago the then president of the American Medical Association reportedly told an audience that within the lifespan of some of them, the average life expectancy for Americans could well reach 100. Then he went on to say that the problem is not so much keeping the body alive as it is keeping the mind functioning.
We who have the privilege of ministering to people need to take care that in this increasingly youth-oriented society we do not forget the aged. They have some very particular needs. First, they, like everyone else, need to be treated as individuals. They do not want to be lumped into a group and classified as “old people” or “the elderly.” I remember very vividly a time when my mother, then in her eighties, said with gusto, “I don’t want to move into that home and live with all those old people!”
Elaine Cumming and William E. Henry in Growing Old (Basic Books, 1961) speak of the “disengagement theory,” in which the process of aging is understood in terms of the degree of relationship to people and events that a person maintains. Withdrawal may be initiated by either the elderly person himself or by others. It may, the authors say, be accompanied by an increasing preoccupation with the self. They go on to point out that although one does not suddenly grow old, yet we tend to speak of youth, middle age, and old age as well-defined periods. Our approaches to pastoral counseling and care often follow the same pattern. A pastor must take into account the physical limitations of the person, of course, but his pastoral care should never merely confirm the situation; rather, he should help the patient reach up a little, never unrealistically high but just a little higher.
The recently retired, many very vigorous and still going full steam, need pastoral attention as they try to find a satisfying way of life. A great many women of retirement age will still be busy for many years in the work of keeping a home. But many men, and some women, need counseling and assistance to begin a new life—and that is just what it should be. Fortunate is the retired person who discovers that now he can devote himself to the most rewarding occupation—helping others.
A second need of elderly people is a sense of personal integrity. By “integrity” I mean an undivided, unbroken state, one of completeness. Aging does not necessarily limit the ability to feel joy and sorrow, to experience temptation or victory, to become interested and involved in people and projects. But too often society gives the impression that to grow old is to be put on the shelf. One certainly does not feel “complete” if he feels left out. He does not feel loved, no matter how comfortable the retirement home, if he longs to hear the laughter of children or to share the problems of a friend or loved one.
Someone has said that we begin life being carried and pushed and end life the same way. But most elderly people do not want to be carried and pushed. Physically, it may be a necessity, but not psychologically and spiritually. This is what I meant by saying that our pastoral care should foster personal integrity. Most pastors can recall being asked by a well-meaning son or daughter to speak to a parent and persuade him to do a particular thing. If the older person is not capable of making a decision, then it must be done for him. But if he is capable, then he has the right and the responsibility to make the decision himself.
A third great need is an emphasis on today, not tomorrow. Too often, pastors perform an obituary-type ministry for older persons. They feel it appropriate to talk much about heaven and little about this earth. Certainly the pastor must be greatly concerned for the salvation of elderly parishioners. But he must not stop at that.
When someone in his seventies asks, “What have I got to look forward to?,” chances are the minister has not met his need if he tells him only, “Heaven.” But if he says “today” and sets about helping him become engaged with today instead of in retreat from it, he has made today much more satisfying and the anticipation of heaven happier. The older a person becomes, the less future-oriented he is. In counseling and in pastoral care, the emphasis should be on the immediate. Elderly persons may also become overly wrapped up in the past. The pastor’s redemptive emphasis on the present will help in the acceptance of the full grace of God.
Most people, regardless of age, want to live. It is the responsibility of the pastoral counselor to help stimulate people to find meaning and purpose in whatever type of life situations they find themselves in. As long as life lasts, people need other motives for living besides the anticipation of heaven.
A final need of the aging is to know that someone is listening and cares. This need, present in all of us, increases with age. The older person wants very much to feel he is being heard and loved, rather than forgotten.
“Caring” involves much more than providing for physical needs. We may well ask, Do we really listen in our pastoral visitation? It is particularly easy to be impatient with elderly people; real listening takes time and concentration. But if the minister cannot give himself in this manner, he will leave lonely people feeling even more lonely. We should use every resource of pastoral care to show that we both hear and care.
Pastoral counseling is more than a one-to-one encounter for the purpose of meeting a particular problem. Success in dealing with critical incidents is largely dependent upon a successful continuing pattern of pastoral care.—KENNETH R. STROM, assistant to the director, Chaplain Service, Veterans Administration, Washington, D. C.
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