Pastoral Care of The Aged

NEVER before has the United States had so many elderly citizens who are "too old to work and too young to die." Caring for their spiritual needs constitutes an important and rewarding aspect of the pastoral ministry. . .

-Director of the Institute for Purposeful Living in Knoxville, Illinois, at the time this article was written

NEVER before has the United States had so many elderly citizens who are "too old to work and too young to die." Caring for their spiritual needs constitutes an important and rewarding aspect of the pastoral ministry.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census in 1972 there were almost 21 million persons in the United States 65 years of age and older. The steadily increasing life expectancy of our population up from 48 years in 1900 to 69.8 years in 1956 has resulted in an ever-enlarging number of older patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the aged. 1

Maintaining Church Membership

The Good Shepherd demonstrated pastoral care for His sheep.2 The twenty-third psalm provides an excellent portrayal of His pastoral work. His keen awareness of human needs made Him sensitive to the unspoken longings of every heart. One of His most notable characteristics was His ability to anticipate the needs of those to whom He ministered.

The basic needs of aged church members, including retired ministers, veteran missionaries, and sustentees, must be adequately met with spiritual insight and an understanding of the special problems of the aged. The following suggestions are designed to strengthen a pastoral-care program for the aged:

1. Seeking out the aged church members. Often names of aged or sick members appear on church records, but their whereabouts are unknown. For various reasons these members may have been transferred from home to home or from hospital to hospital. Because of mental confusion and deterioration, they may not be able to recall the name of their pastor or to correctly give the name of their denomination. On the face sheet of the medical record the term Protestant or Christian may be used. It is not uncommon to find a blank space.

A certain lay member learned that John W. was a Seventh-day Adventist living in a county nursing home and that his mother, also a Seventh-day Adventist, was hospitalized in a State institution in another county. Their names were not found on the church books, nor was there any record that they had been disfellowshiped. The mother, although very forgetful, maintained a good Christian spirit. The son, who was retired from his work as a cook, knew of no action taken by the church against him or his mother. They had simply been forgotten. When asked about this mother and son, some elderly members of the church said, "We thought they had died many years ago."

The names of elderly members should never be removed from the church books unless they are really spiritually or physically dead. Sometimes aged members who are unable to attend services regularly or to give offerings may request to have their names removed, because they feel rejected or unwanted. The pastor should pray for wisdom from Heaven in order to understand the inner motives behind such a request. It may be a cry for help or an unconscious appeal for attention.

2. Bringing elderly people into the remnant church. Nursing homes, homes for the aged, geriatric hospitals, and State institutions comprise a new field in which our pastors can win souls for Christ. The pastor can usually get permission to conduct prayer meetings, Bible study classes, group singing, or Christian worship in these institutions. Such activities can be a great benefit to all. It is not unlikely that some of the elderly people may make their decision to accept Jesus as their personal Saviour and follow Him in obedience.

Gospel services for the aged should be lively. More music, group singing, and visual aids should be used than in ordinary religious services. Golden texts or memory verses can be recited in unison. Due to the short attention span of the elderly, each service should last not more than thirty minutes.

The pastor must know how to prepare spiritual food for elderly non-Adventists in a simple but appealing manner. As an ordained minister and a clinical psychologist, I worked in this field for many years in cooperation with clergy men and witnessed baptisms into the remnant church. It is so gratifying to hear of baptisms from this new field.

A 79-year-old woman in a mental institution one day came to me and said, "I want the Lord to forgive me because I have not kept the Sabbath for so many years." When I asked how she knew so much about the present truth, she responded, "I finished the Bible correspondence course that you enrolled me in." She was soon baptized.

Seventy-one years ago the pen of inspiration wrote: "It is wonderful how many aged people the workers find who need but little labor to lead them to receive the truth, Sabbath and all." 3

3. Respecting retired workers and all aged members in the church. Most elderly people suffer from fear, insecurity, and inferiority. In their dependency they may cling to the pastor as a dependent child to a supporting parent. The old, the disabled, and the feeble require the same warm, emotional relationship as any other person. Therefore, the pastor should provide a church atmosphere as nearly like family life as possible. To address an elderly person as "uncle," "aunt," "grandpa," or "grandma," in a respectful manner will help him to feel that he belongs. His past achievement for God in soulwinning activities may be mentioned briefly in an appropriate way. Once or twice in a year special programs may be given to honor the retired workers.4

Our senior church members should be visited regularly. When they feel lonely or nostalgic it is the pastor's duty to help them review the blessings that our merciful Father has bestowed upon them.

Personal Care

4. Assisting the aged members to obey the laws of health. Some elderly people become anxious over unknown dangers. Accelerated heartbeat, flushing, trembling, a lump in the throat, sweating, and tight muscles may accompany this nameless dread. When they are subject to continuous anxiety they cannot get worries off their minds. They may repeat actions, or they may avoid places and people. Loss of sleep, appetite, and energy, and lack of confidence in themselves are typical symptoms. If the highly sensitive needs of the deeply depressed person are not met, he may consider or attempt suicide.

I knew an elderly church member whose husband had been a wonderful local elder for many years. When her husband died she became so severely depressed that she almost lost her faith in God, in prayer, and in the Advent hope. Another veteran leader of our denomination experienced depression at the death of his wife. Late in life it takes a long time to recover from such traumatic experiences.

Satan takes advantage of the aged person who may lack mental strength, causing him to listen to the voice of a stranger. He may develop some "new light" and tend to accept some "new ideas" that may compensate for his spiritual deficiency. The pastor must be alert to check the tide of "old wives' fables" or dreams. 5

Temperance in living habits ensures a happy and healthy life. The pastor should draw upon the instructions in Counsels on Health, Counsels on Diet and Foods, The Ministry of Healing, and Medical Ministry so that he can encourage our elderly members to eat the right kinds of food. They need to have an adequate intake of protein, minerals, and vitamins, and to avoid the overuse of sugar, fat, white flour, or anything that is not simple, fresh, natural.

5. Integrating senior members in church activities. Spiritual growth and development can be realized best through active participation in church services. Factors to consider include their discomfort in sitting still on hard pews for two hours, steps, distance to washroom or drinking fountain, temperature fluctuation, and position for prayer. Many come to fear ceremonial worship in a large church because they have some hidden geriatric problems that most of the younger people are not aware of.

Elderly members need a good audience and more opportunity to express their faith. They want to witness for their Lord. Their frequent and proper expression of faith will greatly enrich their spiritual life. Some may be able to participate in Ingathering work, help in a branch Sabbath school, give Bible studies, and even enter into new-field work.

Enlisting the Cooperation of the Elderly

6. Helping our aged members to be flexible in attitude and cooperative in spirit. Elderly per sons are characteristically conservative and resistant to change, whether of routine, arrangement, manners, morals, or opinions. These tendencies are not to be interpreted as symptomatic of a repressed antisocial attitude, but may be symptoms of physical decline.

Some of the elderly members may think that the content of the sermon preached or some of the church policies adopted are not in harmony with the principles of the church. They can be quite critical in their attitude. 6 The sympathetic pastor who can explain new things clearly and gradually is able to remove much misunderstanding. In most cases the differences are found in semantics rather than in doctrine and inner conviction.

7. Influencing elderly people in the church to deposit their money in the bank of heaven. One of the personality characteristics of the aged is their strong tendency to hoard material things. 7 Feeling losses keenly, they desire to hold on to whatever they possess. But they should be retaught how to be unselfish and generous.

The local conference has appointed a special agency to provide legal advice on making out wills and fulfilling Christian stewardship responsibilities. Much instruction along these lines has been clearly given through the Spirit of Prophecy writings. After studying this instruction, the pastor in cooperation with the conference stewardship secretary should approach the elderly members about their duty in the disposition of means and property.8 Their children or close relatives may be invited to join in this confidential circle for consultation and planning. Much prayer is needed in dealing with this important business of our heavenly Father.

8. Encouraging aged Christians to maintain purity and holiness. In old age, sexual strivings and excesses may become a source of physical sickness or psychoneurotic disorders. Erotic feelings that are directed toward younger persons, even children, may drive them to break the moral law or to send out a danger signal indicating their effort to regain their lost youth by identification.

An old and retired minister suddenly fell into sin with his "maidservant." A conference worker requested that he be disfellowshiped because of an affair with his office secretary. An aged theologian whose mind was preoccupied with sex began to molest a teen-age girl to satisfy his psychosexual curiosity. Such tragedies can be prevented if our pastors are faithful watchmen, warning our elderly members, as well as workers, before they fall into the trap of Satan. How to help our senior Christians to be pure in heart in these last days presents a severe but challenging problem. Our aged members should be kept busy in studying, gardening, singing, participating in missionary projects, to keep their minds away from themselves and sexual fantasies.

In principle, it is not best to mix old men and women together.9 If and when they are in a mixed group, close supervision must be provided. They should not read fiction. Their conversation must be noble and clean. Instead of sexual materials preoccupying their minds, they must have the Holy Spirit dwelling in their hearts, helping them to continue the work of sanctification begun in their younger years. The last few years may be more important than the first fifty or sixty years in the pursuit of holiness.

When one of these older ones falls into sin we may recall these words from the pen of inspiration: "Aged men, once honored of God, may have defiled their souls, sacrificing virtue on the altar of lust; but if they repent, forsake sin, and turn to God, there is still hope for them."10 Thank God for His mercy and for this reassurance and promise.

9. Getting the elderly followers ready to sleep in Christ with peace and hope. Elderly people who suffer from geriatric diseases or general pain and discomfort show distinctly ambivalent feelings toward death. They often want to die, believing they have nothing to live for. They wish for cessation of their physical and mental dis tresses, but when they feel the hour near they become disturbed and afraid. They cling to others and want them near at all times.

The precious promises found in Psalm 23, John 14:1-3, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, and John 3:16 should be repeated often. Pray with the sick, using simple but sincere language as a small child talking to his father. Recount the blessings that the Lord has showered upon him in the past. Review with him how he has spent the best portion of his life for the kingdom of God. Never fail to give him opportunity to praise the name of the Lord and to express his trust in His glorious return.

The visit should be brief but warm. Let the elderly sick feel the comfort and hope that come from his Physician and Saviour through your facial and vocal expressions. How you greet him or how you shake hands with him as you say good-by may convey to him more reassurance than you can express otherwise. Divine touch can reach him through the human hand that is sanctified with the love of God.

These nine areas demonstrate how important pastoral care is to the elderly. A conscientious pastor cares for his sheep and is willing to die for them. When he sees a wolf coming he acts quickly to drive the wolf away. He listens only to the voice of the Good Shepherd and keeps watch over the flock that the Holy Spirit has placed in his charge. He is rewarded by being able to bring his sheep safely into the fold.


1. K. Wolfe, The Biological, Sociological, and Psychological Aspects of Aging (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1959), p. 3.

2. John 10:11-18; Eze. 34:11-16.

3. Evangelism, pp. 446, 447.

4. Lev. 19:32; Prov. 20:29. See also "Aged Believers," "Aged Gospel Workers," and "Aged Person(s)" in Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen C. White.

5. 1 Tim. 4:7.

6. Evangelism, pp. 106, 107.

7. Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 423.

8. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 479; vol. 2, pp. 647, 648, 675; vol. 3, p. 116; vol. 7, pp. 295-298.

9. Welfare Ministry, p. 238.

10. Prophets and Kings, p. 84.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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-Director of the Institute for Purposeful Living in Knoxville, Illinois, at the time this article was written

May 1973

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