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Older People Are a Blessing

  Using the Gifts of Experience

  Parish Ministry

  Making Life Meaningful



Although we seem to live in a youth-centered society, older people have recently been in the spotlight. Their numbers alone demand attention: The elderly population in this country has increased 11-fold between 1900 and 1994, whereas the non-elderly population increased only threefold, says a U.S. Census Bureau report.

The United Nations had designated 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons. In response Pope John Paul II wrote a letter in October “to my elderly brothers and sisters.” And the following month the U.S. bishops released Blessings of Age: A Pastoral Message on Growing Older Within the Faith Community.

The pope’s letter recognizes “elderly people who remain amazingly youthful and vigorous in spirit,” as well as those who are being cared for by others. It is written by a 79-year-old man who has experienced his share of conflicts and ill health.

Using the Gifts of Experience

The bishops’ pastoral challenges the entire faith community to “form a fresh perspective, one that sees older persons as active participants in contributing to the Church’s life and mission, and is meeting the spiritual needs of its members.” It is meant to be studied by individuals and parishes.

It challenges an old myth about elderly people: “While individual seniors vary in their abilities, health and emotional outlook, the perception of aging as a period of unrelenting decline and withdrawal from society is simply untrue.”

It encourages older people “to give something back, to make a significant contribution to your Church and community and, in doing so, to enrich your own life.” This remark seems aimed at the multitudes of retired people who could be doing more to make the world a better place, rather than those who are already doing so. Helping others beats boredom, offers the opportunity to be with other people and feels good.

The pastoral encourages individuals, the Church and society “to find innovative ways in which to use the gifts and experience of older people.” One person I know developed her own innovative way to use her special skills. She is a retired geography professor who takes a carload of students from an inner-city school on a field trip almost every week throughout the school year. How many other retirees possess special skills that don’t fit existing projects? And how many schools and parishes are willing to allow someone to try something that hasn’t been done before?

The pastoral urges older people to help themselves, too, by speaking out, writing letters and forming organizations: “You are your own best advocates!” Social Security reform, end-of-life issues and health care are some relevant examples.

Parish Ministry

The pastoral also calls upon parishes to develop structures “that encourage and facilitate the contributions of older people” and specifies who needs to give input: “Older people themselves should help to identify their pastoral needs and decide how they are met.”

The pastoral recognizes that many retirees are active in parish ministries such as visiting homebound people and serving on committees: “Older people are providers, not just recipients, of pastoral care.” Indeed, parishes couldn’t survive without their assistance.

Commenting on parishioners who receive pastoral care and recognizing that parishes differ in their needs and resources, the pastoral says that, when a parish cannot provide a service, it “must be able to direct older persons, their family members and caregivers to appropriate resources.”

Making Life Meaningful

The pastoral calls older people to “act with greater moral grounding and vision....In later life you begin to wonder if your life has made a difference to anyone—if it has meaning.”

Older people can be positive role models, create pleasant memories and be considered blessings. For example, grandparents can pass along their cultural heritage to their grandchildren and then return the favor by listening attentively as the youngsters tell their stories. Even homebound people, who often are the recipients of services, can pray for others, give compliments and say, “Thank you.”

The pastoral keeps reminding older people that it’s not too late for some things: “While you cannot change past events, you can ask God to help you change your attitudes and perceptions of them....You may discover a need for reconciliation: to seek forgiveness or to extend it to others.”

The pastoral asks young adults to identify their image of older people. Some children observe elderly neighbors who smile and wave; others encounter grouchy souls who yell at them to keep off the grass. Some children have grandparents who always say something nice; others have grandparents who constantly complain.

All of us need to reflect upon the image we project to those who might copy our behavior. It’s much easier to be a pleasant and productive older person if such a pattern was established at an earlier age. We’re never too old—or too young—to work on improving our image. —M.J.D.

Blessings of Age is available on the Internet ( or by calling 800-235-8722 (order number 5-341).



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