Author’s Note: On 23 March 2005, I submitted this paper in partial fulfillment of the requirements in our pastoral counseling subject. Readers must consider that I wrote this in the context of Philippine setting within the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches.
Counseling Ministry Concepts for the Elderly
“If a congregation has no older members, it’s too bad!” That nugget of wisdom from a quotable quote this author heartily agrees. For many congregations, there will be no shortage of older members any time soon.
In our society and even in our churches, the elderly seem to be the neglected sector in ministry, care and attention. Being old implies that one has reached his or her degree of usefulness, and with strength that is ebbing because of old age, the elderly must confine themselves in their own world.
In keeping with the Filipino value of respecting and giving honour to the elderly, the Filipino family still provides and cares for their old. However, in terms of seeing them as people who need psychological support, the Filipino or, say, the Christian family lacks.
Personally, I am writing on this topic so that I could equip myself better in ministering to my elderly mother, my parents-in-law who are approaching an older age, several of my father’s friends, including my professor in pastoral counselling.
Perhaps, this is still part of processing my sorrow for my father’s passing last year, who I thought was still strong and capable – a quality that he always projected, but later, I realized that he doesn’t want to bother us with his real health status.
This paper is minimal because there is little literature on counselling the elderly in the local setting. For lack of time to research, most of the contents here should be considered exploratory. Nevertheless, the author poured out all his vision and concern for the elderly sector of our congregation. May this paper open doors for elderly issues and concerns in our local churches.
To be old does not imply passé, that one has reached his or her peak of usefulness and must be left out and abandoned until death comes. I see the elderly as icons of history, pillars of faith, and form of the continuity of life in our church. Thus, being old must not be seen as a burden that lack of ministry knowledge pushes the church to be negligent and apathetic.
From the National Census and Statistics Office report, in the projected year 2000 population, the elderly aged 60 years old and above include 6.35 per cent or 4.98 million of the 78.4 million total populations of the Philippines. Of the 4.98 million senior citizens in our country, 40 per cent or 1.9 million are in the 70 years old and above bracket.
From these data, we could assume that there are six senior citizens in every 100 congregation members; two or three of the six are aged 70 and above.
While the statistics seemed to project a minority figure, it is not a reason to neglect the senior citizens. The church has still a mission to do with the senior citizens. Besides, the population age of the Philippines is getting older.
The impact of the above-mentioned demographics and many others not addressed here would need more than a reactionary response by pastors and congregations. Being reactive than proactive has long been a charge laid at the feet of the church when addressing current-day social issues. It seems to me that in terms of pastoral care and counselling, the church always arrives at the scene a little breathless and a little late.
Until the inception of Pastoral Care and Counseling and Clinical Pastoral Education subjects in the curriculum, women and men in training for pastoral ministry could complete a Bachelor’s and Master’s level degree without hearing any lectures, discussions, or reading any books challenges of ministry among older adults.
Providentially, our college of theology is now appraised of the necessity to prepare ministerial students for ministry in all sectors, including the elderly. At present, there is no cause for worry because we could see in almost all Baptist churches that there is an existing ministry for the elderly.
In fact, I see that the elderly comprise most members of the visitation team in our churches. In the University Church, the elderly are immortalized in the Jubilant Choir and their organizations, which present a perfect ministry model.
However, ministry with the elderly should not only be expressed in terms of giving them importance through the choir, senior citizen Sundays, and detailing them as visitation team members. Pastoral counseling and care ought to be emphasized too.
The elderly needs someone who would listen to him or her, give them a sense of belonging and friendship on a one on one basis. There are also elderly who are in difficult circumstances, such as post stroke patients, feebleness due to old age, blindness and many others, who need the attention of the church.
To echo what the Apostle James proclaim that true religion is caring for the orphans, widows and add to it the elderly.
What great impact would that be to the life of our elders when we could visit them and listen to their feelings, offer them the assurance of God’s love through His word, hold a service and communion with them and most of all pray with them.
As the song goes, “The time to be happy is now, the time to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others happy and TO HAVE A LITTLE HEAVEN DOWN HERE,” let us give a “little” heaven to our elderly people through pastoral care and counseling.
What Can the Counselor Do With the Elderly?
As the elderly population rises counseling must be done on problems that are facing today’s elderly. The elderly (people aged 65 or over) may be living at home by themselves or maybe living with children, a few are in the nursing homes, or even retirement homes, although, many are facing the same problems.
Some problems elderly people endure along with the aging process are things such as depression, social disengagement, fear of dying, and coping with loss, financial inadequacy, deteriorating physical health or stamina, and many more.
In the counseling program for the elderly, the pastor counselor could help when the elder is grieving the loss of a loved one, experiencing feelings of depression or worthlessness or recurrent agitation or sometimes unresolved life issues and conflicts cause distress.
As the physical aging process is inevitable, the extent of loss is variable, how people adapt is critical. There is much proof the elderly are having a difficult time coping. According to a US study (though it does not follow that it applies in the local situation), one key indicator is that the highest suicide rate is among the 65 and older population, being 11% of the population, they account for 25% of the suicides.
This figure does not account for suicide brought by death related to slow starvation, overuse of drugs, a combination of both and the simple failure to thrive that accompanies depression.
Factors found that relate to positive psychological health include an appreciation of humor, religion, and certain personality variable such as extroversion and conscientiousness. Studies also show perceptions of problem solving, such as more control, less avoidance and more confidence are favorable to increase psychological well-being among the elderly (Hanson & Mintz, 1997); Social interaction is also an important aspect of counseling the elderly. Social relationships give six functions, which are a) guidance, b) reliable alliance c) reassurance of worth, d) attachment, e) social interaction, and f) opportunity for nurture. Studies show that having more social interaction results in lower levels of depression and higher levels of life satisfaction among the elderly population (Atlmeier and Aquino, 1996).
Research indicates group therapy offers an opportunity for socializing, altruism, and realizing the universality of other age-related problems, which contribute to normalizing the aging process. Studies reveal two types of needs expressed by participants: 1) problem-solving needs that are focused around activities and daily living and 2) emotional growth needs such as coping with grief that is related to the developmental changes in aging (Weiss, 1994).
One theory that has gained much popularity on the issue of aging is the promotion of successful aging. The purpose of this theory is to encourage counselors to promote successful aging by doing wellness work with people before they reach old age.
Counselors in individual counseling, group counseling, workshops, or courses can implement the process of helping to promote successful aging. Successful aging is all about helping provide skills to translate vision into reality (Ponzo, 1992).
The Dynamics of Pastoral Care Among the Elderly
If asked, a majority of elderly people would say that they should continue to use their talents in the life of the church. I would also recommend that.
Of course, those who are already frail and sickly should be given careful consideration. A study revealed (not in the Philippines) that their rationale for continuing to serve the church after retirement centered on there being much life and ability remaining after someone reaches the notorious age of sixty-five. Further, if they can do well in their service, they should be allowed to continue, ability and not age being the significant determining factor.
By keeping them active makes the older segment of the congregation feel useful. There is after all, “plenty of harvest and few harvesters.” Intergenerational ministries could also work well in the church, having older members work with younger members in the congregation.
This allows for vision and activity to coincide. It also provides a venue for the older person to pass on wisdom, and to model a willingness to be a co-worker and not the decision-making leader (a stabilizing presence not running the show). While working together, the older person can gradually transfer responsibility appropriately to younger persons.
There is a need for a group counseling class for senior citizens where issues among the elderly will be dealt with. I am very sure that there are many underlying issues on them and one way of letting the elderly cope with these issues is through counseling.
Senior citizens must be thought of the reality of the psychological stages in life of every being. In that way, they would be aware that in later life, from a life of independence they have to go back to dependence to survive.
That means they should accept the fact that in growing old they need support from the younger generations, especially their children and kin. The church must also provide venue where the concerns of the elderly shall be heard. In this way, knowledge, attitudes and practices of family and church members towards the elderly people shall be enhanced.
There is an urgent call for pastors and the church to launch a serious counseling ministry with the elderly. This ministry fulfills the community spirit where reciprocal presence and mutual appreciation of the other’s worth as a person created in God’s image integrates the components of a healthy relationship and fulfills God’s image of a true community.
Through the years, as the need for quality pastoral care of our older adults in the church and community spirals due to increases in the elderly population and changes in available human service resources, pastors and churches who have established a sustainable ministry for the elderly are invaluable both as pastoral caregivers and as training resources to aid other clergywomen and clergymen in addressing the challenges of their aging congregations.
I have known church people, some pastors who have retired and passed away in obscurity. I am happy and blessed that my father died with dignity. Still, there where times during our trying months when we began to think that nobody had remembered us because it was over a month that nobody came to visit. Through my father, I was able to feel and treasure the importance of a visit and most of all the seasons of prayers with co-believers.
Well, let us have a little heaven down here through a very sustainable ministry with the elderly people. As the Lord Jesus prayed that God the Father’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, so let the atmosphere of the heavenly be done unto and through us. Amen.
PHOTO CREDIT: Joven Baloyo