Who will help the elderly live abundantly and finish faithfully?
Editor’s note: On January 22, many Southern Baptist churches will mark “Sanctity of Human Life Sunday,” a day for considering the sacred nature of God-given life.
Springfield | For Ruth McGlennon, one of the most challenging parts about her new life in a nursing home was getting used to the sound of her roommate crying. Although the woman wasn’t physically able to speak, McGlennon was able to guess right away the source of her sorrow.
“Her family never came to see her,” said McGlennon, a former kindergarten teacher and the eldest of 10 siblings. “She had sons, and I used to be very mad at them. She could have been the worst mother in the world, but she was still their mother, and they should have been there to see her.”
The story McGlennon shared is sadly common, said Joyce Mancke, leader of SonShine Ministries, which she and her husband started 12 years ago when they lived in Joliet. The ministry, which sends teams to visit local nursing homes, now has local expressions in communities across Illinois. The Manckes are members of Eastview Baptist Church in Springfield.
“Many times, we have the elderly who never get any attention at all, or family visits. Sometimes we are all they have,” said Mancke. “Too many times, they’re just put away. Viewed as a burden.”
In Illinois, 1.8 million people are over the age of 60, according to the U.S. Census Bureau projections for 2015. That means one in seven people in this state are seniors. And about 100,000 people live in nursing homes, according to the Department of Health. Mancke said the hardest thing for many of them is the loneliness, “feeling that nobody cares.”
But the church can help, said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. It’s vital for the church to be “at the vanguard of witnessing to the sacredness of life at all stages—from womb to tomb,” Walker said.
“The Scriptures speak clearly of the wisdom that comes with age, and younger generations should actively seek out wisdom.”
“We need to see seniors as important contributors within the life of the church. The Scriptures speak clearly of the wisdom that comes with age, and younger generations should actively seek out wisdom.”
Place of honor
Scott Foshie, pastor at Steeleville Baptist Church, said many seniors—whether they are in nursing homes, assisted living or homebound situations—feel as though “life’s passing them by.”
“It’s tragic, but sometimes people are so career-oriented—and people can be caught up in their own plans—that there’s that temptation to kind of neglect [seniors] and maybe kind of pretend that they’re not there,” he said.
Foshie said that kind of attitude undervalues the gift they bring to the body of believers. “None of us ever retire from ministry,” said Foshie, who mentioned many seniors in his church are phenomenal prayer warriors. “They should have a place of honor in our church. We should cherish their wisdom and honor their faithfulness. I think God blesses churches when we take the time to do that and give them that special place.”
One way Christians can honor older people actually hits very close to home, Walker said. “One of the most important things the church can do to witness to its pro-life convictions at all stages is to invite elderly parents, where it is medically possible, into the home to live with adult children.
“I am concerned that the default assumption in America and within the church is to offload care of parents to outside institutions.”
While Walker said nothing is inherently wrong with nursing homes or other similar institutions, he disagrees with the attitude society has about the elderly.
“They are not society’s burden,” said Walker, who plans to take in his parents someday. “They aren’t my burden. They are my parents and I owe them this honor.”
“They aren’t my burden. They are my parents and I owe them this honor.”
Joyce Mancke’s team of 8-10 people from Springfield churches, including Eastview Baptist, visits local nursing homes weekly. “I personally think you should have a [seniors’] ministry team for the church,” she said, adding that the size of the team isn’t important; it’s a person’s heart for the elderly that counts.
“If you’ve got two or three with the heart, God will multiply that,” she said. “It’s like the bread and the fishes. When you see the heartbeat and when you see the Lord directing their life, people want that. You’ve got to be willing to commit, and it’s a big commitment, but you’ve got to be willing to say, ‘Yes, Lord. I’ll go.’ And that’s contagious.”
Although it’s tempting to place all the responsibility of starting a seniors’ ministry onto the pastor, Foshie said the key is actually to mobilize members of the church.
“If I tried to do it all, it would actually limit what God wants to do,” the pastor said. “I think God is a God of relationships, and I think the relationships we enjoy between our generations in the church is a reflection of God’s unconditional love for us.
“If we do not do this, if we do not get involved in ministry on a cross-generational level, then we are really missing out on God’s plan for us.”
Elise Dismer is a freelance writer living in Springfield.
6 ideas for nursing home outreach
1. Sing hymns. Joyce Mancke of SonShine Ministries enlisted the aid of her husband’s quartet when she first started visiting nursing homes. She said that music, especially hymns, seemed to touch the seniors there in a powerful way.
Pastor Scott Foshie of Steeleville Baptist Church agrees that music is “absolutely effective” in seniors’ ministry and draws in a crowd at a nursing home quite quickly, even if it’s just two people singing.
2. Make phone calls and regular visits. Connecting and spending time with seniors is important, especially in cases where a senior can no longer drive. Foshie took his youth group to the nursing home every month or so to mingle and play games with seniors there. “They love it when teenagers come, and young people,” he said. “They love the energy and to interact with them, and I think the teenagers grew to love it. They would tell me if it had been a bit too long since we’d gone to see them.”
3. Study the Bible. Digging into the Word will not only encourage believers, it also acts as an outreach to those who may not know the Lord, Mancke said. She shared that while holding a Bible study with one man, his roommate, who overheard the studies, came to know the Lord.
4. Celebrate birthdays. Whether it’s with birthday cards, flowers, and balloons, Foshie said the gesture of celebrating a person’s life can go a long way in showing that you care.
Likewise, Mancke makes a point to ask if anyone has had a birthday on her visits to nursing homes so that the whole choir—and consequently the whole room—can sing “Happy Birthday” to him or her.
5. Give hugs. Mancke hugs everyone at the nursing homes she visits. She said it’s a good way to combat the feeling of loneliness that many people experience there. “The challenge is just knowing that people care about them,” she said. “You’ve got to make them feel like they’re part of the family.”
6. Make donations. Nursing homes often have a need for clothing like socks, underwear, T-shirts, and sweaters, Mancke said, as well as practical items like lotions, shampoos, combs, hair curlers, blankets, and stationery. Since each nursing home has its own policy on donations, it’s best to call the one near you to find out the most in-demand items or any restrictions that are in place.
In whatever way you reach out to seniors, Mancke said, the impact of the outreach is often surprising. “We go to be a blessing to these people,” she said, “but the funny thing is, we’re the ones who always come back on a mountaintop.”