“I’m never going to be old and ugly. Before that happens I’ll kill myself.” An intense fear of old age—conjuring up visions of uselessness, loneliness, and ugliness—forced this confession from one intelligent, attractive teen-age girl. This antipathy toward old age, unspoken by many in our youth-oriented society, is one of the serious problems churches face when dealing with gerontology, about which they had done little until recently.

Sociologist John O’Brien of Portland, Oregon, says the Church, not social agencies, has the answers for the aging. “Sociologically, there is no reason for old people to exist,” he observes. “If all the elderly were killed today society would continue to function.” The Church, on the other hand, teaches the worth of each individual under God. Or as one minister at last month’s Interfaith Conference on Aging put it, “The Gospel speaks to the needs of the total man throughout the total life cycle. Christ cared; we should too.”

The conference, first of its kind, was held in Athens, Georgia, and included representatives of several Protestant denominations plus Jews and Catholics. It grew out of the 1971 White House Conference on Aging, which stressed the importance of concern for “spiritual well being” in ministering to the aging.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has had programs for the aging for 100 years, probably longer than any other denomination. The Eastridge Lutheran Retirement Village in Miami, Florida, a non-profit housing ministry financed through FHA, opened in 1962. The village now has a population of 400, and the average longevity has risen by about five years. (The over-sixty set is the population’s fastest growing group, according to statistics.) An expert considers Eastridge one of the best retirement centers in the country.

B. F. Schumacher, executive secretary of the denomination’s social ministry, explains that the elderly dislike regimentation but need security. At Eastridge, he says, residents choose their own housing, live independently, and still have the security of a fully equipped and staffed medical center.

Eastridge also provides educational opportunities. The village, in cooperation with HEW, is “community-coordinated” with junior colleges in the area. Professors teach non-credit courses at the center. One 80-year-old woman who believed that age was no deterrent to learning signed up for all thirteen courses offered one semester, ranging from Spanish to investments, and surprised everyone by successfully completing them all.

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The retirement village also emphasizes Christian education and evangelism. The chaplain, said Schumacher, is the focal point. Bible studies, often led by residents, and worship services form a major part of the spiritual thrust. Eastridge also encourages participation in churches outside the village, since not all its members are Lutheran.

Many other denominations and local churches run similar retirement centers, most financed through FHA. Some have recently encountered tax problems. In Minneapolis, Calhoun Beach Manor, a retirement home operated by an arm of the United Church of Christ, must now pay property taxes. The reasons Chief Justice Oscar Knutson of the Minnesota Supreme Court cited were: the residents are not charity cases but must pay their own expenses, and the facility is not strictly church-owned property. This is true for other denomination-owned non-profit housing. In some cases, explained Mrs. Wilson Sterling of the Episcopal Church, the rent charged is too high for low-income elderly while the high-income elderly are ineligible for such non-profit housing.

One example of this is the FHA-financed First Community Village, sponsored by the First Community Church of Columbus, Ohio. Entrance fees range from $7,900 for one person to $24,000 for two, depending on the type of housing chosen, with monthly fees from $145 to $530.

The same problem exists with Episcopal homes in California. Canon Edwin Moss and his wife paid $18,500 for an apartment; they now pay $550 a month maintenance fees. The general policy for such retirement homes is that the apartment or cottage is resold after the resident’s death. Shell Point Village, a plush, privately financed Christian and Missionary Alliance center in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, charges a $1,000 membership fee, a “Founder’s Gift” health-care fee, and an apartment purchase price ranging from $10,400 to $35,000, as well as a monthly service fee.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) operate twelve retirement centers, most of which are privately funded and also often restrictive because of rising costs. However, not all elderly people, even if they can afford it, want to participate in congregate living, commented Donald F. Clingan, executive director of his denomination’s National Benevolent Association. The Christian Church is developing two new programs to minister to the elderly still living in private homes. One is a mobile center that will provide educational and nutritional aid. The other is a national training program designed to help pastors and laymen establish ministries to the elderly. Some of their churches, however, need no prodding from headquarters.

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The Reverend Andrew Crawley, pastor of Chapel Christian Church in Winder, Georgia, discovered a nursing home full of needy people. He asked members of his congregation to dedicate themselves to a twelve-month visitation program at regular intervals (once a week to once a month). Forty-one people, from 12 to 80, “adopted” one person each.

One result of this program has been a community chaplaincy program for the nursing home. Ministers of area Baptist, Methodist, and Disciples churches take turns leading Sunday-morning worship services. In Crawley’s own church, missions giving has increased.

Some United Presbyterian and American Baptist churches are also striking out on their own for the aging. Evanshire Presbyterian Church in Skokie, Illinois, “hustles work for the elderly in the area,” said Kris Ronnow. The church provides the place, the elderly provide the labor. Unfortunately, he says, many of the jobs are menial, such as stuffing envelopes or packing boxes. But still the work is useful, puts them next to other people, and produces income for the program.

Donald Crosby of the American Baptist Convention conducts one-day training sessions to stir church interest in gerontology. His “multi-media show” with a collage-like presentation and rock background music attempts to combat fear and misunderstanding of the aging process. “You can’t help the elderly unless you have a healthy attitude toward your own aging,” says Crosby. He encourages pastors and laymen to visit their community’s older people and find out their needs. “Until you find the need, you can’t find the solution,” he insists. Not all communities, for example, need to supply “meals on wheels.” In some cases, meals on heels is a better idea. The inner-city National Baptist Memorial church in Washington, D. C., provides free dinners at the church five days a week. This gives the elderly a chance to meet new people and get out of their often dismal homes.

Other churches, explains Crosby, could provide telephone reassurance programs (hot lines). Transportation needs are more acute in some communities than in others. “How many elderly people have died of malnutrition because they couldn’t get to a grocery store?” asks Crosby. (An 88-year-old woman outside Athens, Georgia, was found dead of malnutrition in her home, and the problem wasn’t lack of income, said a conference official.) Others, Crosby adds, have no way to get to a doctor, or to get medicine. The days of drugstore delivery are over.

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Crosby discussed other ideas. Churches can serve as information and referral centers. Many talented retired men and women (teacher, doctors, lawyers, for instance) want to work, but have nowhere to go to find it. Not only could churches refer these people to jobs; they could also serve as job-bank centers for employers looking for part-time or specialized help.

A San Francisco church enlisted retired members to “adopt” their neighborhood blocks. They served as census-takers for the church, evangelists, and friends to the forgotten elderly.

The First Baptist Church in Melrose, Massachusetts, mobilized its community to help the aging after Crosby held a training session there. The church surveyed the community, discovered the needs, and offered its facilities to the city as an information and drop-in center five days a week. An elderly woman in the congregation spearheaded the program. (It’s vital, says Crosby, to involve the active elderly members of the congregation in any ministry to the aging.) From this small beginning, the city received a $40,000 grant from the state to develop a full-time center for providing meals and other services. Crosby points out that state and federal funds are available to non-profit organizations for meals programs.

One major problem area yet unfaced by most churches is the matter of death education: how do you get ready to die? It’s there, if anywhere, Crosby points out, that the Church really has the answer.

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