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Keeping the Faith with Older Adults

Published on 12/4/2018

Communities of faith are adjusting to keep up with the needs of aging members and caregivers.

More than four years ago, as Rabbi Laura Geller approached retirement, she noticed that people in her age cohort were growing disengaged and starting to leave her community at Temple Emmanuel, Beverly Hills, CA. “Their needs weren’t being met,” said Geller, now 68 and Rabbi Emerita. She observed that the community was most interested in supporting millennials and young families despite the fact that one-third of her large, Reform congregation was over 60.

Not content to let people drift with spiritual questions and unmet needs, Geller and her husband Richard Siegel, who has since passed away, founded ChaiVillageLA, a member-led community based on the Village model of aging-in-place and interdependent living. ChaiVillageLA offers support services, as well as social and healthy living programs via a network of member volunteers, staff and interns.

While volunteers escort members to the doctor, offer rides, run errands, and make small home repairs, the organization also helps seniors navigate thorny spiritual questions, ritual creation and end-of-life care.

As the number of aging Americans grows, along with life expectancy, faith communities like Rabbi Geller’s are adjusting to address the changing needs of seniors. They’re looking to offer meaningful programming and services that help people to age in place, offer caregiver support, and provide resources around spiritual rituals and end-of-life considerations.

Creating New Rituals

While pivotal moments like birth, coming of age and marriage are marked by blessings and rituals, there are few, if any, between marriage and death. “We’re living longer in that stage of life but there are no rituals.… We need to think about ritual in a new way and create new rituals,” Geller observed.

For example, when adult children dismantle a parent’s home, “it’s either a chore or a holy task. You can acknowledge the divinity that’s present in that moment,” she explained. Geller created a ritual whereby homeowners went from room to room and shared a memory from that room, thanked the room and concluded their “tour” with a blessing of thanksgiving.

Other moments for which ritual is absent in any faith are retirement, when a couple moves from the house where they raised their children to a small apartment and the removal of a wedding ring after the death of a spouse.

Intimate conversations and Rabbi Geller’s experiences as a faith leader, eventually led to a book, which she wrote with her late husband: Getting Good at Getting Older: A Jewish Catalog for Our Age, to be published by Behrman House in 2019. The book is a how-to about getting older, Jewish rituals and end-of-life issues.

Building Trust

While the absence of rituals, particularly end-of-life practices, represent missing links that some faith-based communities are addressing, others focus heavily on the existing social infrastructure, services and programming to meet the needs of their aging community and caregivers.

Angela Overton, Associate Minister of Greencastle Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, works with a predominantly African-American population and sees herself as an education provider. She makes regular home visits to people who are too ill to come to church, and often comes up against a lack of trust where end-of-life issues, advanced directives and hospice care are concerned. “People think ‘you’re giving up on me.’ I have the opportunity to speak with people to express what dying means,” Overton said.

A member of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (CTAC), an interfaith group working to improve care for people with advanced illness, Overton is working on a training template for clergy to provide hands-on experience on how to approach end-of-life issues and spiritual care.

“I don’t think the faith-based community is doing enough. I try to build relationships with individuals who I visit and make them more aware of organizations that can benefit them,” Overton explained.

Caregiver Support

In London, Ontario, Siloam United Church offers programming for caregivers including a gentle exercise program for easing stress, along with seminars on depression and dementia. “All the studies show that the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships! Faith communities are uniquely equipped to help people grow and nurture supportive and caring friendships,” said said Rev. Dr. Sheila Macgregor, Lead Minister and Minister of Worship & Pastoral Care. Macgregor also offers what she calls a “pre-retirement” course that focuses on strategies for caring for aging and frail parents while juggling work, caring for a spouse or grandchild, and self-care.

Rabbi Richard Address, founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging, LLC and host of the Seekers of Meaning podcast, said many faith leaders are struggling to figure out how to serve both aging Baby Boomers and the 75+ “old age cohort.” He works with Jewish organizations and interfaith groups around the country, offering workshops and consulting on aging issues. He says “We need to restructure how congregations look at these issues.”

Muslim and Aging in America

In the Muslim faith, issues around aging, incapacitation, death and dying rituals are fraught with shame. Most aging Muslims rely on family caregivers and don’t typically turn to outside support services for help.

“They have no idea about how to age in the U.S. They’re used to kids as the social security system in old age in the Middle East. When they come here, it’s a different story; the way we access our social support system is different,” said Mona Negm, Chair and Founder of the American Muslim Senior Society (AMSS).

Based in suburban Washington, D.C., AMSS offers programming on healthy aging, caregiving, dementia and memory loss, and community dialogues in partnership with Muslim Community Centers, local imams, Islamic Centers, the Islamic Society of the Washington Area, Montgomery County, Md. government, and other organizations. Negm said the goal is to develop programming and support structures for aging Muslims whether they have families to rely on or are alone.