Ten thousand people in the U.S. turned 65 today – and yesterday and tomorrow.
They enter the largest population of older adults that has ever existed.
Consider this: In the 20th century, the years of life expectancy for white males in the U.S. grew from 47 to 70; for white females from 45 to 80, for Black males from 33 to 68; and for Black females from 35 to 75.
And in the 21st century, for the most part, life expectancy has grown a few months each year. Improved public health measures, such as pure water and pollution reduction, better nutrition and many medical advances contributed to this growth.
Two-thirds of all the people in the U.S. who have ever lived past 65 are alive today. Presently, there are just as many people who are 70 as those who are 17. This trend will continue; by 2040, there will be nearly as many 80- to 85-year-olds as 0- to 5-year-olds.
Sheer numbers imply an invitation to increased ministry with this vastly growing population. However, there is at least one barrier: ageism.
Fifty years ago, pioneering gerontologist Robert N. Butler coined this word and defined it, “Ageism can be seen as a process of systematic stereotyping of and discriminating against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender.”
Of course, a person can be a victim of more than one of these – ageism, sexism, racism – at the same time.
Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn said there are six myths about old age. “1. That it is a disease, a disaster; 2. That we are mindless; 3. That we are sexless; 4. That we are useless; 5. That we are powerless; 6. That we are all alike.”
Ageism can be found in the church as well. With rare exception, there is no great enthusiasm for exploring new ministries with this vast population of elders. Rather, there is discouragement if membership numbers are stagnating with mostly older adults remaining.
My experience in the last three years offers a stark contrast to this. In January 2018, my wife, Mary Ann, and I moved to a nonprofit retirement community where the median age is in the 80s.
Once I got beyond noticing all the wheelchairs, walkers, canes and such (secondary characteristics to be sure), I found a lively and creative group of people.
To give a few examples, we grow gardens and share extra produce with each other, edit and circulate a monthly newspaper, run a little grocery store, do small handyman projects that help keep our property beautiful and well maintained.
A couple with expertise on bluebirds has initiated bluebird houses across our campus. People with shared interests form singing or instrumental groups. Some provide lay leadership in worship services.
We create numerous groups for games, learning and support. There are some real jokers among us, and many laugh and play.
It is a well-documented but little-known truth that older adulthood is, on the average, the most content and happy of the adult life stages. We do not let a chronic disease or two keep us from and enjoying and serving each other and the world beyond our community.
I am a part of a men’s support group led by a fellow resident. He has encouraged an atmosphere where each can express what he feels and believes without arguments or putdowns. In this setting, for the first time, I – who some might call a bleeding-heart liberal – have had respectful conversations with NRA members, and we still are friends.
Leaders resolving to be more intentional about ministry with older adults will need to learn about the variety among us.
For example, three are three historical cohorts: GI or “Greatest Generation,” born 1905-25 and quickly fading; Silent Generation, born 1925-45; and Baby Boomers, 1946-64.
There are also life stages within the older adult years. One senior labels them “go-go, go-slow and no-go.” And beyond that is a variety of skills, interests, experiences, memories, hobbies and opinions.
We older adults have gifts to give to a church’s life and outreach. Many of us are passionate about a variety of issues and causes. Some of us hope to leave a spiritual and perhaps financial legacy to support causes and ministries important to us.
We also have needs to which a missional church can respond. Some suffer from isolation, loneliness, frailty and food insecurity, to name a few of these needs.
So, of course, reach out to children, youths, young adults and families. And explore and enhance your ministry among this old-new mission field – the vast numbers of us elders.
Following 40 years in parish ministry, he taught for 18 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas where he retired in 2016 as distinguished professor of pastoral theology. Olson is the author or co-author of 20 books, including Celebrating the Graying Church: Mutual Ministry Today, Legacies Tomorrow (Rowman & Littlefield / Alban, 2020). He lives with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin.