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Indispensable Older Adults

Is there an issue of social justice in regards to older adults? Yes. Working as a chaplain at a retirement community, I see multiple ways that people view older adults as dispensable — dispensable, meaning nonessential, able to be replaced, disposable, unneeded, and superfluous.

Pay Attention to Older Adults’ Wishes and Values

So many visitors treat these important and worthy adults as children. You can tell it by the tone in their voice. As they speak to residents, their voices raise an octave, as if speaking to a toddler. Or else, they ignore or don’t listen to a resident’s wishes.

When Maggie moved into a retirement community, she didn’t want to be here but at home. However, her doctor had recommended assisted living care for her own safety. Maggie grieved the loss of her home, angry at her family’s insistence she remain here. But what angered her most was that her family gutted her apartment, selling personal possessions or taking them for themselves without ever telling her. They had also decided which items to move to her new suite. She never had the opportunity to select furniture or belongings that were precious to her.

While older adults might not be able to decide a safe living arrangement, their wishes and values must always be listened to and respected.

Older Adults Are Irreplaceable

Older adults view voting as a sacred duty. Unlike younger generations, They see voting as a significant way to express their citizenship.  When Jennifer, our activities director, checks in with the residents about voting, she notices the pride and gladness residents experience when voting. I helped Dottie fill out her absentee ballot this year. As I read the names, she never hesitated in her vote. Unfortunately, many younger staff and resident family members don’t recognize how important voting is to older adults.  Some family members never bring in their parents’ absentee ballots. Other family members direct us not to give them an absentee ballot, due to their loved ones’ dementia. But Michigan voting laws, nothing prohibits older adults from voting, even cognitive impairment.

These experiences point to how our wider culture views older adults: dispensable and easily replaced.  But my experience as a chaplain to older adults speaks to another reality. Older adults are indispensable — indispensable meaning critical, vitally important, required, essential, necessary and key. Our communities and our country desperately need to listen to the experience and wisdom of our older adults.

Learn from Older Adults’ Experience

Many days, I feel like I am the learner, sitting at the knees of these wise older adults who show me the way to live a life that is full, kind, loving and deep. (For more information, listen to this Ted Talk.) Ann Marie (90) lives here with her husband Richard (96). Because Richard’s health has deteriorated and his memory impaired, Ann Marie is his primary caregiver, along with the help of our staff. She faithfully cares for him, regardless of the cost to her. When I asked her about this, she told me, “Richard and I cared for all of our parents at our home until they passed away. I plan on doing the same for my husband.” Her faithful service to her husband teaches me essential service is in marriage.

Linda lives in our health center, receiving skilled nursing services. She needs help with bathing and dressing, and she suffers from significant dementia. Although she remembers little from her daily life, she knows exactly what we can pray for her during worship. “I want to be true and continue to grow closer and closer to my God,” she often says. She teaches me that faith comes from the heart, and loving discipleship never ends.

Accept Grace Like Older Adults

Older adults, like all of us, have faced challenges and difficulties. From many of them, I see the hard-earned discipline of accepting grace their lives with deep peace. But we have trouble learning acceptance, hence the popularity of the Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” (Reinhold Niebuhr) Aren’t serenity, courage and wisdom sadly lacking in our communities and our country?  How would our communities be different if we listened to older adults and benefitted from their experience?

Churches and faith communities are one of few places where multiple generations interact. What conversations or relationships would occur if we purposely created intergenerational groups to have personal conversations about life experiences or personal topics?

About Rev. Beth Rodenhouse

Rev. Beth Rodenhouse served in parish ministry for eight years and chaplaincy for five years. She currently serves as chaplain at Pilgrim Manor, a United Church Homes community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is part of the ministry of the United Church of Christ.

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