Aging's effects on the Church

In the coming decades, the pews in your local parish will be filled on Sundays with a disproportionate number of senior citizens. 

The United States’ population is aging at an unprecedented rate. In 2030, the country will have 72.1 million people older than 65 — more than double than what the elderly population was in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency on Aging. 

That demographic trend presents challenges for Catholic organizations at all levels.

Shifting resources

Parishes will have to undergo changes to meet older Catholics’ spiritual needs. They will need to shift resources to ministries for the elderly, such as implementing parish nurse programs. They also will have to create new outreach efforts to connect homebound seniors with parish life. 

Ministries that work with the elderly, especially in the health care field, are already adjusting their operational planning in preparation for the coming wave of aging baby boomers. 

“All these issues, we’re approaching from the Catholic perspective of caring for the mind, body and soul,” said Deacon Dan Gannon, president of Catholic Senior Services for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn. 

Catholic Senior Services coordinates and connects seniors to parish-integrated senior care, housing and other social services throughout the Twin Cities area. Deacon Gannon told Our Sunday Visitor that providing elderly care and maintaining Catholic identity is at the core of his agency’s mission. 

“It’s important for the Church to stay on top of this age wave of epic proportion,” Deacon Gannon said. “We need to make sure that no one is marginalized ... That the dignity of the human person is upheld.” 

In 1999, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops anticipated the challenges and opportunities posed by an aging population in the document “Blessings of Age,” which was developed by the bishops’ Committee on the Laity in collaboration with the Committee on Women in the Church and in Society. 

The bishops encouraged a fresh perspective that embraced “the gift of aging,” which they said demands the attention of the entire Church. 

In the document, the bishops said: “The current situation is unprecedented. The sheer number of older people as well as their vitality, their longevity, and their own desire to give something back to society and the Church impel us to develop new pastoral responses. Former responses that saw older people solely as the recipients of care are not adequate.”

Fellowship, ministry needs

Just as parishes and dioceses in recent years have focused on ministries that cater to youth and young adults, they also will need to keep in mind the older population. 

“We can certainly do both,” said Sheila Garcia, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. 

“Perhaps most important, Church leaders need to shift their mindset and begin to see older adults as givers, not just recipients, of pastoral care,” Garcia told OSV. “My sense is that much ministry with older adults is peer ministry, that is, people working together to meet each other’s needs.” 

One of the biggest needs among older Catholics is fellowship. Many older adults live alone, and they would welcome the chance to get out and socialize with their peers in a parish setting. 

“So if the pastor can just provide an accessible meeting space, older adults are quite capable of doing the rest,” Garcia said. “My mom, for example, belongs to a parish Leisure Club that’s been around for more than 40 years, thanks to the efforts of its members.” 

Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., agreed that there is a greater need for senior groups, parish nurses and volunteers willing to give seniors rides to and from church, and to visit them at home. 

“The Church has always shown a deep care and concern for the aged and the ill, but in many parishes it will begin to draw a greater proportion of the Church’s resources,” Father Landry said. 

Pastors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion will have to bring holy Communion to more elderly people at home. More parishes will have to become handicapped accessible. Some parishes even may install webcams for the sick and elderly to watch Mass at home. 

“One of the big needs is for a continued growth in Catholic programming for people who are unable to get around as they used to,” Father Landry told OSV. “EWTN, CatholicTV, Catholic radio programs and the like are already helping a lot of seniors at home to stay connected to their faith, but I think these offerings will need to expand as the same parish communities — pastors and committed volunteers — form adequate structures to keep people connected and spiritually cared for.” 

Greater assistance also will be needed for caregivers, especially those caring for elderly parents with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. 

“All this is going to lead to a greater need for bereavement groups as we’re going to have to accompany family members in their grieving and evangelize them appropriately as they return to Church to bury their loved ones,” Father Landry said.

Parish vitality

The aging trend also will impact parishes’ lay ecclesial ministry. A 2010-11 survey on parish lay ministers conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that only 6,800 of the estimated 38,000 lay ministers in the United States are 40 or younger. About 60 percent are in their 50s and older. As this cohort retires, it could have a significant impact on parish ministry as lay ministers formed in a different era take over. 

“There is not a lot of good news if you look around the world from an economic point of view, but in terms of the Church, there is some good news in the sense of parish vitality,” said Mark M. Gray, a research associate at CARA. 

He said that older Catholics historically tend to be more churchgoing and involved in parish ministries. The coming decades then, Gray said, could lead to a more active Church life on the local level. 

“You will have more people going beyond just attending Mass but also taking on volunteer positions and professional lay ministry in later life,” Gray told OSV. “You might see an increase in the percentage of Catholics attending Mass because of the disproportionate numbers of older people.”

Increase in practice?

Given the sheer size of the baby boom generation — more than 76 million people in the United States were born in the post-World War II years between 1946 and 1964 — the nation could tilt in a more religious direction as they age and become more involved in church, Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport writes in his new book, “God is Alive and Well” (Gallup Press, $24.95). 

lay ministry
Aging trend will affect lay ministry W.P. Wittman

“It’s a reasonable expectation that the huge group of boomers is going to become more religious and because they are so big, they’ll make the country more religious in the aggregate,” Newport told Religion News Service on Jan. 7. 

Father Landry disagreed, saying that he does not expect to see mass conversions as more people obtain their AARP membership cards. 

“If people aren’t practicing their faith in their 20s, 30s and 40s, they’re not going to be more fervent in their 70s and 80s,” Father Landry said. 

Regardless, pastors and committed volunteers will need to form adequate parish structures to keep people connected and cared for spiritually. Gray said parishes and dioceses began preparing for this demographic shift a few years ago when the recession hit. 

“The Church is responsive to communities that are hurting, and seniors are definitely one of those groups,” Gray said. “Not all of them have pensions or big 401(k)s. Reaching out to this community is a good start because that is a community that is going to continue to grow for years and years.”

Health care concerns

The Catholic Church offers “many skilled nursing facilities, assisted-living facilities and other daytime programs where dignified, compassionate care provides living witness to its mission,” the bishops said in “Blessings of Age.” 

“One of the great urgencies is for Catholic assisted living, hospital and hospice situations where people will be able to be treated with love and not with the false compassion that will try to persuade them to end their lives,” Father Landry said. 

Father Landry

Catholic hospitals and others are realizing that older people, especially the very old, have special needs when they are hospitalized, said Julie A. Trocchio, senior director of Community Benefit and Continuing Care at the Catholic Health Association of the United States. 

“Hospitals are trying to make sure that they are giving good care to this increasingly older population,” Trocchio told OSV. “The elderly have a totally different set of needs.” 

More Catholic hospitals are trying new approaches to senior care. Many have implemented a program called NICHE (Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders), which provides principles, policies, education and tools to support changes in a facility’s culture in the way it provides health care for seniors. 

Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. — part of the Trinity Health System — instituted the nation’s first emergency center designed for — and dedicated to — patients over age 65 with non-life-threatening emergencies. The emergency center has thicker mattresses, heated blankets, remote controls and telephones with larger buttons, softer lighting, specialized speakers and safety features like handrails. Trocchio said the hospital’s emergency center has become a model of geriatric patient care for the rest of the country. 

“I think in terms of quality initiatives, many health providers are taking part in the NICHE movement, but even those without NICHE, they are thinking through the question of how can we make sure that we are giving the best quality of care to people who are frail, and that includes having a staff that is knowledgeable about dementia,” Trocchio said. 

Another big movement in the Catholic senior health care field is a move away from long-term institutionalized care to home and community-based services, Trocchio said. 

“I think there is a definite trend to serving people at home,” Trocchio said. “Many elderly people who have needs aren’t in facilities. They’re still in the community, but they still have needs.” 

An aging society relies on a compassionate and professional medical community. The bishops warned about the pressures the elderly might face in the coming decades to spare their families the emotional and financial burdens of caring for them. The assisted suicide movement — under the guise of compassion — has in recent years tried to present euthanasia as a humane option to end suffering, which the bishops have spoken out against. 

“There is nothing wrong with being dependent on others; interdependence, not independence, is a true gospel value,” the bishops wrote. 

Trocchio said Catholic hospices continue to provide vital, quality, compassionate end-of-life care. 

“When you think of the beginnings of Catholic health care, it was to take care of people who were dying,” Trocchio said. “That’s kind of where our roots are.”

Housing needs

The growing senior population also presents challenges to Catholic ministries that provide housing, assisted living and nursing home facilities. 

“There is a huge demand for services, particularly in terms of safe and affordable housing options for seniors,” said Beth Cwiklinski, executive director of Catholic Senior Housing & Health Care Services for the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. 

An aging society relies on compassionate medical professionals. Shutterstock

In addition to having a 208-bed nursing home, Cwiklinski said her organization operates eight senior independent living apartment communities with 280 apartments; there are currently 200 seniors on a waiting list for those units. 

“Now more than ever, we are challenged with providing people with care,” Cwiklinski said, adding that many seniors are entering the nursing home system at an older average age — about 78 — and are living longer with more complex medical issues. 

More of those seniors also are entering the system without significant assets and savings, which means that organizations are becoming more reliant on government reimbursements through programs such as Social Security and Medicare. 

“Clearly that puts a strain on our budget,” Cwiklinski said. “That means decreased revenue streams, and it means making good decisions on how you are utilizing the resources that you have.” 

To meet the growing need for seniors, agencies like Catholic Senior Housing and Health Care Services will need to anticipate state and federal budgets, find new revenue streams, forge new partnerships with private businesses and nonprofits and be careful stewards of their resources. 

“We will need the help of philanthropy and creative partnering to make it work as much as possible,” said Catholic Senior Services’ Deacon Gannon. 

“You have a need for senior programming at the same time that the resources are decreasing,” Deacon Gannon said, adding that the amount of seniors on Social Security is expected to triple in the next two decades. 

“Affordability is a big issue,” he said. 

“Our goal is that we want to be sustainable,” Cwiklinski added. “There is a significant benefit for a diocese to provide care and services to the elderly, and the Diocese of Allentown is certainly committed to that. But the issue is sustainability, and to make sure that we are still here five to 10 years from now.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

'Wealth of Spiritual Resources'