At age 74, Trappist Father David Altman calls himself “one of the kids” at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville, Utah, where the average age of the seven priests and eight brothers is 82. The youngest is 65. 

As for retirement, he said, “I’m the bookkeeper and treasurer, and just like the last guy before me, I’m going to die with my boots on. We are contemplative and don’t have apostolic activities like preaching or taking care of parishes. A person could officially retire from that kind of work. But there’s no such thing as retiring here unless health problems develop to the point where a person can’t work anymore.” 

In Silver Springs, Md., Sister Patricia Kenny, who previously worked in education and other positions, is in the communications department and is publications editor for the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Their charism is apostolic service to the poor, the sick and other vulnerable populations, especially women and children. 

“I’m 77, and the truth is, I’m not retired,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I’m still working full time. Many sisters who are my age, sometimes into their 80s, are in the sense ‘retired,’ but almost everybody does something. We take pride in the fact that we are not really retired.” 

Aging population

Father Altman and Sister Kenny are among the 70,798 religious sisters, brothers and religious order priests in more than 550 communities in the United States, according to 2012 statistics from the Retirement Fund for Religious (RFR) in Washington, D.C., which is the annual appeal coordinated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO). 

Annual Appeal
This year’s national collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious will be Dec. 8 and 9 in most dioceses. Since the collection began, U.S. Catholics have donated more than $671 million to support older religious, with 95 percent of the funds going to serve the needs of the older religious and 5 percent going to administrative costs. 

They also represent the growing number of religious who are 70 or older, a population who will affect the financial needs of all religious communities. The ones that rely on younger members being employed in teaching, nursing, pastoral ministries and other paid positions will especially feel the crunch. 

The NRRO predicts that by 2019, the retired religious will outnumber wage-earning religious by nearly four to one. That marks a dramatic change since 1992, when wage-earning religious outnumbered their retired counterparts by more than 20,000. As retirement numbers go up and revenue from employment goes down, the costs of caring for aging members escalate.

Support needed

The RFR was created 25 years ago to assist those men and women, and is supported through annual appeals at the parish level. According to RFR’s latest report, $27.4 million was raised in the 2011 appeal, up nearly $700,000 from the previous year. Since 1989, the fund has donated $633 million to support the current and future needs of more than 53,000 senior religious in the communities that participate. 

That support is crucial for several reasons. One is the loss of employment income not only from aging members, but also because there are fewer religious working in Catholic schools and hospitals. There also are fewer Catholic hospitals that can provide reduced fee or pro bono services to the elderly religious, which often was done in the past.  

By The Numbers
The majority of men and women religious are past age 60 and the population of the United States itself is aging:  
There are 37 million people in the United States past age 65
17% of men religious and
11% of women religious receive no Social Security benefits
The average Social Security benefit
for religious is $4,559
for other Americans, it’s $13,968
While the cost of skilled care for 5,683 women and men religious was approximately $300 million in 2009, this amount is expected to be dwarfed in 2040, when 85-year-olds in the general population outnumber 5-year-olds.

And unlike diocesan priests, men and women religious are not supported by their local dioceses. 

In 2011, the RFR provided $23 million in direct care assistance to 453 religious communities for nursing care, prescription medications and more.  

Another $2.6 million was earmarked for planning and implementation assistance so that religious institutes could devise strategies for retirement funding and elder care. Since 2009, that program has reached 72 communities representing nearly 9,000 men and women. More than $199,000 was given for continuing education in areas related to retirement planning. 

“The educational and consultative support provided by the (NRRO) has enabled numerous religious communities to develop comprehensive retirement strategies,” the 2011 annual report stated. “However, too many others struggle to provide adequate care. In fact, nearly one-third of the religious institutes providing demographic data to the NRRO in 2011 are less than 20 percent funded for retirement. Elder-care costs continue to rise [exceeding $1 billion for each of the last three years] while the number of religious needing care grows and the number of wager-earners decreases. We are, in the end, pursuing a moving target.” 

Staying productive

The Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity does not receive funds from RFR. Two of their members are in assisted living, and the others still work, with everyone doing what they are able. 

“We are self-sufficient through sales at our bookstore and we lease 1,878 acres of farm and rangeland,” Father Altman told OSV. “We also have retreats, which are a very important apostolic monastic tradition, but we don’t charge for them. People just give us donations.” 

But there are more than financial and practical reasons to work past the traditional retirement age. 

“As long as we can work, we want to,” Sister Kenny said. “We have sisters who will say they are retired, and then they will rattle off four of five things that they do — on Mondays, this, on Tuesdays, that. When we say retire, it’s usually with a smile. Nobody wants to not be doing anything.” 

And what does she want to do next?  

“I’d like to make it to 80 doing what I’m doing,” Sister Kenny told OSV. “And then I can cross the next bridge when I get there.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.