By David Lichter
As I entered my seventh decade this past year, I have found that my learning accelerates, not decelerates. Lifelong learning is driven not only by the desire to get the most out of life, but also by the desire to understand life as it is and can be. I am so blessed by the NACC, and all of you who continue to grow gracefully into life and stay committed to developing professionally.
This issue of Vision is dedicated to ministry to this population. Our NACC members are not strangers to this topic. The average age of our members is 64, which has remained steady over the past decade. The average age of our “new” members and our “student” members is the mid-50s! We all know that this is a second or third career calling! We have a couple of ways to look at the average ages of our members. One is by membership categories:
- Full members – 61
- Affiliate members – 69
- Retired members – 73
- Emeritus members – 81
- Ministry volunteers – 67
I was happy to see that our full members, i.e. those actively working in spiritual care, are the youngest group. Thank you for your ministry!
Looking at our membership profile by background shows the average ages to be:
- Brothers – 65
- Deacons – 69
- Laymen – 59
- Laywomen – 64
- Priests – 59
- Sisters – 72
We are grateful to all our sister members, who, while the oldest on average, are also the ones who work well into their 70s and even 80s.
So, when does being “older” begin? The well-known Pew Research Study of 2009 showed a great disparity in perceptions. Survey respondents ages 18 to 29 said that old age begins at age 60. Middle-aged respondents considered the threshold near 70, and respondents 65 and older said they do not become old until turning 74.
So, if we are not sure when it begins, how do we refer to someone when it happens?! It has been instructive for me these past months to be educated on what terms we use to describe our ministry to the … elders, seniors, mature, older adults that we are becoming!
For what it’s worth, Wikipedia informs us that “old people” is used worldwide, “seniors” is more American, “senior citizen” is used both in Britain and America, and “elders” is used in some cultures and tribes as a respectful term.
However, the U.S. Congress passed the Older Americans Act in 1965. Since then the National Council on Aging has designated the term “older adults” exclusively. That term has been reauthorized many times since then, as recently as 2016.
The term “senior” or “senior citizen” is fairly common. It’s good for discounts and knowing where to live (senior communities), where to go (senior centers) or when to golf (senior circuit). However, it is not as frequently used in pastoral care.
Certainly, the medical world refers to gerontology and geriatrics, the terms used along with eldercare as the medical treatment provided to the elder population beginning at 65, although that, too, is being revised upward. Our 2019 conference will include a six-hour preconference workshop on “Fundamental Aspects of Geriatric Spiritual Care Education.” The presenters will also use the term eldercare, implying a respect for our older population, as the term is used in some cultures in that way. Of course, some view being “elderly” as feeble, frail, and less useful. As much as that might be true for some physically, it does not take away the inherent dignity and value of the human person regardless of age.
Growing up, when asked, “What shall I call you?” I responded, “Just don’t call me late for dinner.” I hope the articles in this Vision issue provide you much food for thought on how to care for our older adults, and on how to live gracefully into those years. What we call “them” (me) will be less important as we get to know each person we care for by name.