A year or so ago, I was privileged to experience a “saying good-bye to neighbors” party in the home of an elder couple who were moving out of state into an assisted living facility. Their adult children had encouraged the couple to move closer to their family. The move required the husband and wife to give up their home of forty years and say good-bye to life long friends and neighbors in their church and community. This was to be a celebration for all to remember, complete with special food, cakes, photographer, corsages and boutonniere, new Sunday best outfits, and some of the couple's best friends serving as hosts and hostesses to insure that everyone had an opportunity to visit with the couple.
What struck me most about this party and those who attended was the honesty of the conversation. No one avoided speaking of the move, no one pretended the couple wasn't leaving the next day, no one pretended there would be visits in the future. Instead, they laughed about the times they'd had together and spoke of how much they cared for one another. In the midst of a difficult and painful transition, there was great joy and love.
There is much about grace to be learned from our elders in local churches. Many experienced the communal responsibility of caring for one another long before small group ministries became popular. Their compassion and understanding comes from knowing each other well enough to be truly useful to one another. They have come to accept that these relationships will bring disappointment and anger, as well as joy and love. They know there is nothing easy about living life together faithfully. And still, these elders reach out with an honesty that can be life-giving.
I have come to deeply appreciate the insights elders have taught me in ministry. Making time to visit with them, listening to their stories and concerns, sharing hugs, asking about their missional outreach projects, and having table fellowship has given my ministry a deeper meaning. In her recent book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, Mary Pipher reminds us that “the old need our heat, and we need their light.” As I have become more intentional about visiting, about being present, I've found many of our elders have become more present for others, for me. One of the elders in the church commented that she didn't know why everybody seemed to like her. The truth is her smiles, genuine hugs, and acceptance of whomever she is with makes her a delight. The smiles of our elders, the jokes that aren't always so funny, and the thoughtful, lovingly crocheted or baked gifts very often bring warmth into the harried days of ministry.
Realistically, not all of our elders are able to smile, share jokes, or are considered delightful. Many are homebound or confined by health and/or situations beyond their control. Our sacred task is to create a compassionate community for these persons through caring connections from the congregation. What an awesome and weighty responsibility for any community of faith! Lay visitation and weekly audio or video tapes along with bulletins of the elder's favorite worship service or lesson materials from their Sunday School class can offer a link to the faith community. Many of the elders receiving audio tapes enjoy hearing friends' voices, and feel connection through the busy chitchat of their Sunday school class or fellowship group. Audio tapes also offer an opportunity for class or group members to share greetings, news, and messages of love with their friends without requiring expensive equipment or trained operators. And, for those elders with internet access, don't forget the possibilities of connecting them through congregational websites.
Some of our elders require special care that offers hope and meaning, especially for those who suffer from Alzheimer's type dementias. In his article “To Possess Your Soul Is One Task of Old Age,” (printed in Aging and Spirituality: The First Decade, 1999) Thomas J. Kroon speaks of offering a spiritual life that gives meaning and offers hope to those who struggle with keeping possession of their soul until the end. Believing that the soul “consists of memory and hope,” that it “knows possibility and potential,” and is given meaning and purpose by God, Kroon points out the faith community's collective responsibility for holding on to these special elders and their souls. Our willingness to remember their stories and listen carefully to these persons is an act of equal regard, love, and mutuality. According to Kroon, “as we hold on to one another, we hold in our hands our communal salvation.”
What hopeful joy was expressed at that party! The blessing that the couple received included God's promise to accompany these children of God into an uncertain future. It allowed them to know that despite their separateness, there would always be a connectedness and bond with the faith community. Our offer of caring ministry to and with our elders will no doubt invite both comfort and discomfort, pain and delight. To be an elder requires a great deal of courage to live in the midst of life's frightful ambiguities. Our pastoral task is to welcome our elders to God's party so that they can also continue to experience life's blessings!
Sara J. Fleming is Director of Adult Ministries at Kirkwood United Methodist Church in Kirkwood, Missouri.