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Older Adults: A Ministry for the Future

Residents Clara and Phyllis embrace each other as they laugh and smile. All photos courtesy of Perry Lutheran Homes

The Lutheran church is flourishing. Does that mean that every church service is packed to the brim? Not necessarily. That our churches are full of nothing but young people and children? Not quite. Rather, it includes this beautiful picture: that our dear older Lutherans are proving themselves to be firmly planted, bearing fruit like they can do none other — and what a flourishing it is!

Yes, in their old age, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) members continue to live their lives of faith as an example and inspiration to those around them, including the young people and children who join them in the pew each week.

“Project Deliver the Love” volunteer, Sofia, delivers a basket full of God’s love, encouragement, goodies and more to resident, Sue.

“These are dear ones for whom Christ died,” said Heather Wathall, deaconess at Concordia Life Ministries in Cabot, Penn. “Very often, their lives are closed off out of fear of being a burden. The truth is, they have lived and learned, and they have much value to add to our life together in Christ.”

This invaluable group of God’s little children is essential to His church. But who are the seniors and older adults in our LCMS churches today?

Residents Phyllis and Joyce tend to flower gardens, thanks to wheelchair-accessible raised garden beds.

The who’s who of Lutheran seniors
Studies show that some 10,000 Americans are turning 65 every day. They’re healthier, more active and living longer than previous generations. Our Lutheran seniors are no different, and indeed many of them are quite active, even into old age. Meanwhile, God is merciful, carrying out His good works through all seniors as their vocations here on earth continue on longer than perhaps those of previous generations.

“The seniors in our LCMS today are the backbone of congregations,” said Deaconess Heidi Lundquist, who previously served at Lutheran Homes (Lutheran Life Villages) in northwest Indiana. “From what I see, they are the majority of people who attend worship regularly. They participate in altar guilds, serve as elders, are choir members, etc. Most are very traditional, have strong faith and appreciate the values of days gone by. They struggle with understanding some of the changes in the churches including music, not using hymnals, not using liturgy and the like. They also miss having communion each week and singing familiar hymns. Many seniors wish to be surrounded by their families and friends.”

What Lutheran seniors want
LCMS older adults and seniors are also more in-the-know than most people realize.

Residents at Perry Lutheran Homes enjoy a sunny day.

“Older people want to be engaged in the world and keep up with what’s going on,” shared Hans Springer, former executive director of Adult Lutherans Organized for Action (ALOA) and himself a senior in the LCMS. “They’re becoming more savvy in using iPhones and the internet. These are the people in church that will continue to be there Sunday in and Sunday out.”

Still, tech-savvy or not, it’s important for the church to be in touch regularly with seniors, in ways that are meaningful to them. Pastoral visits to bring the Word and Sacrament to the housebound are essential. However it is the care and concern of the baptized membership that makes a great impact on the lives of older adults — especially those who are unable to engage with their church in typical ways from week to week.

“Too often people expect only the pastor to do all of the shut-in calls,” said Max Phillips, CEO and chaplain of Lutheran Home for the Aged — West (Perry Lutheran Home) in Perry, Iowa. “But one visit from the Johnsons is worth 10 from the pastor. We are usually good at connecting with people right after a funeral, but it’s that ongoing, loving relationship that manifests itself in home visits, joins them at doctor visits, etc.”

When it comes to more active seniors, they’re hard to miss.

Resident Phyllis is helping to make homemade sugar cookies.

Where Lutheran seniors thrive
“Seniors in the LCMS are in many ways the same as they have been in generations past,” said Wathall. “They volunteer at the Lutheran schools. They manicure the church’s flower beds. They create masterpieces in garage wood shops. They mentor young families and adopt extra grandchildren.”

Even in senior living facilities, the elderly have opportunities to mentor and adopt.

Perry Lutheran Home, where Phillips serves, focuses on intergenerational care, so at any given time the facility is caring for people ages 6-weeks to 106-years-old. They’re together for Bible studies and other activities, and the result has been phenomenal for both children and seniors alike. In particular, seniors struggling with dementia who are typically unresponsive to adults have miraculously connected with young children and babies.

“It’s been a blessing for everyone,” said Phillips. “When I first got into this as CEO at an eldercare facility, it seemed like residents were always and only with other 80, 90, 100-year-old people,” he recalled. “For them, it was never like it was when they were at home and on their own and mobile. There was a blessing in having the generations together, and that used to happen for them in families. Now we’re creating that for them again, and it’s good and it’s the right thing. God has made our lives together a rich diversity.”

Lutheran seniors die well
Lutherans aren’t usually shy when it comes to talking about aging, or even about death and dying. And this is as it should be, since Christ has conquered death! Because of that reality, LCMS seniors can teach younger generations something that they likely can’t learn anywhere else in the world.

Residents Clara and Florence enjoy animal therapy with Cinnamon the horse from the Jester Park Equestrian Center in Granger, Iowa.

“Our elders teach us about dying well,” shared Phillips. “The example they provide for their families and the staff at care communities and the way they face death, it’s priceless. Not that they aren’t scared or wishing it wouldn’t happen, but they show us how you can be fully trusting in our Lord and how this trust happens in their hearts every day. It can be a very joyful and peaceful and helpful thing, and we ought to look at it that way.”

Wathall agreed, emphasizing that our seniors know the real meaning of the Christian life better than anyone, if only we take the time to hear their stories.

“Everybody has a story and it’s so important to share it,” she said. “[LCMS seniors] are repositories for the grace of God. They have lived law and Gospel, whether they know it or not. They know just how much God has done in and through them and through their suffering. Their stories — they are gifts, and we should treat them as such.”

The biggest challenge? Ensuring that our seniors and older adults are certain and sure of God’s unconditional love for them, and that His plans for all of us are good and perfect, no matter our age. And another thing is for certain: His plan always includes loving our neighbor and sharing His Word until He calls us home.

Perry Lutheran Homes’ staff children, served by Acorns & Oaks Christian Academy daycare, visit resident Cathy, bringing her love, laughter and joy.

How Lutheran seniors love and teach
“God calls us to serve others at every age and stage in life,” shared Deaconess Dorothy Krans, director of Recognized Service Organizations for the LCMS. “Retirement is a worldly word and not a churchly word. God sees no distinction in aging and serving. Even the person with Alzheimer’s who is saying a Bible verse or singing a hymn by heart is sharing God’s Word with others.”

While we all fall short of this sacred task, Lutheran seniors show us what a life of repentance and faith looks like, and how we continue on as forgiven, loved members of Christ’s body. Through their life experience, they show the church-at-large what it is to live a life centered on Christ. They are steadfast and firmly planted, bearing fruit in their old age. Yes, the church is flourishing!