Seniors are not second-class citizens. In the United States alone, there are over 34 million of them, with great political and economic clout.
In 1900, the average U.S. life expectancy was 47; today it is 75. In ten years it may be 80. Are we heading for 100?
People are not only living longer but are more influential than any other senior generation of the past. Their needs are different; their thought processes tackle different problems. Therefore, the Sabbath School adult class that lumps together everyone over the age of 18 will not minister effectively to retired people.
Senior citizens are not raising families. More than 85 percent of them over age 65 are no longer employed. This presents a vast untapped source of energy and expertise. Many seniors who appear unresponsive are bored. Not everyone looks upon a cruise around the world as the ultimate goal of retirement. The continual menu of never-ending recreation offered seniors soon palls.
Retired people love to learn. Witness the night courses, studies through the mail, and college credits available to older people. In the church, seniors relate more readily to a teacher their age, or near their age, than to a young person. In view of these varied needs, how can we make communication attractive to the seniors?
Here are some suggestions that helped me in my ministry to seniors.
Take the Bible where they are
Study of the Bible need not be restricted to Sabbath School alone within the confines of a church structure. The class may be in a housing project, an apartment development, a retirement home, or a nursing home—anywhere in a neighborhood where seniors are found. Many elderly people who do not drive have to use public transportation. They have no driver to take them to you, and so if you go where they are, they'll appreciate your ministry even more.
Let the Bible address their needs
Seniors have some special needs. Some of them suffer from persistent, troublesome fears. Others may have physical and emotional feelings that they do not know how to cope with. In the case of others, failures and regrets from the past return suddenly to haunt them. Seniors often tend to hide great physical suffering with a smile and a gentle manner. When is the last time you saw an elderly person cry or give vent to their emotions? Many have lost that power of expression, and that is in itself something difficult for them. If the study of the Scriptures can focus on these and other special needs, seniors will find a new joy in life, a new sense of meaning in the church.
Stimulate them to learn and find for themselves the feeling of satisfaction that follows. Encourage them to memorize Bible passages. Such memorizing is not just for kids; seniors can get emotional satisfaction from the fact that their minds are alert when they find they can in fact memorize a biblical gem.
Bring fresh motivation for Bible study
Seniors should have more and fresher motivation to attend a Bible class than just "loyalty to the church." A skilled teacher and well-planned lessons can provide such motivation. Some years ago, I taught a class of ladies in their '80s and '90s in a retirement home. About half of them were able to attend their own churches, so I chose lessons that would not sound like a sermon or duplicate what they would study in the church. I visualized lives of famous Christians, using both flannelgraphs and flash cards.
Visual aids for grownups? Why not? "The eyes are 1,000 times more effective than the ears in sweeping up learning," according to one educator. Yet some teachers use talk as their only tool with adults.
We also put memory to good use, often memorizing as many as six verses at a time. Since seniors may have difficulty in retrieving stored information, we also did a lot of reviewing of what we had studied. Not to review is to leave the work half done. I made 8" x 11" flash cards with the Bible reference and the first word printed in large letters. We learned at least a verse a week and re viewed continually. The ladies already knew familiar passages of Scripture that are often read at memorial services, Communion services, and on holidays, so we added them to our repertoire.
Since seniors have short attention spans, lessons and stories should be short and to the point. Avoid serial stories that continue from week to week. Classes should be limited to 30-40 minutes.
Establish a common language
A common language between teacher and class is a must. With seniors, today's slang would not be appropriate or understandable. Seniors have lovely old-fashioned values and ethics. The era in which they grew up is of great interest to them, the years when memory was strongest. Seniors with a church back ground may, for example, remember the pioneer missionaries and love to hear stories retold in a modern way with pictures. In one of my classes, no one was blind, but all had hearing impairments of varying degrees. Deafness is even more isolating than blindness. A teacher of seniors must speak loudly, slowly, and clearly without using amplification. Amplification often magnifies noises for those with hearing aids.
Provide something for them to do at home
Each week that I met with one of the groups, I photocopied a mystery question as homework and gave it out at the close of our time together. For example, one question I gave them was: "Was Abraham a Jew?" I listed references in the Bible to look up. We were all amused to discover he was not.
Mystery questions had nothing to do with the lesson; they were chosen to arouse curiosity and encourage the learners to open their Bibles and search. You can make up your own questions, but keep them simple, stimulating, and interesting. One person joined our class each week mainly because she looked forward to this homework.
Keep controversies out of the class
Most of the ladies in my groups come from Christian backgrounds. I keep my teaching nonsectarian and avoid controversy. Old age brings so many fears and ailments, that I want to be sure, that they know God's grace is more than a theological concept accompanied by an array of debatable fine points. In my group we talked about "grace to help in time of need," and grace to which we may "come boldly."
Make the seniors feel useful
One of the worst fears or feelings of old age is feeling useless. This often leads to depression. Many seniors are lost without work of some kind. The suicide rate for American men is four times higher after retirement than at any other age of their lives. Encourage the seniors in your church to be involved in volunteer work. As of 1999, the American Association for Retired Persons, for example, has 47,000 registered volunteers and 110,000 supported volunteers.
Seniors may share their experience and skills with small children in nurseries or meet other such needs. A letter-writing ministry may be staffed completely by senior volunteers. They may work in the needle arts for missions, cook for church suppers, baby-sit, prepare crafts for busy teachers, be a prayer partner to a new Christian, give financial advice to young married couples, tend a church bookstore, send weekly cards to the absent.
Seniors in a church will feel they "belong" if someone phones them once a week whether they need it or not! Be sure each senior has a listing of phone numbers of all the others, and a preferred time each person would enjoy a phone call from friends.
My ladies still read widely, so we started a library of Christian books, specializing in editions with larger print. We have tried to obtain these volumes from inexpensive sources. In our meetings we work on building our library. Candy, bookmarks, decorated felt cut outs, pens, pencils, or postcards to write to a friend are all a part of what I bring to such meetings.
What are the rewards for ministering to the elderly? Just being a friend, or being there to listen to them, or to assure them that God cares.