(This editorial first appeared in the February 2018 issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Are our churches ready for the “greying” of Canada?
Last year, Statistics Canada reported that for the first time since 1871, Canadians 65 and older outnumber those under 14. ere are 5.9 million seniors, compared to 5.8 million children.
The demographic shift will be even more pronounced in the coming years, as more baby boomers age. By 2036, it is projected that seniors will represent about a quarter of the population.
Sociologists and economists warn of a “silver tsunami,” one that will have a pro- found impact on just about every aspect of our economic, political and social life.
The greying of Canada presents not just challenges, but opportunities, especially for churches.
That our society is growing old is not surprising—it is very much reflected in our pews. A majority of Canadian Anglicans are 60 and older.
There has been a tendency to view this demographic change with alarm, as a portent of the church’s precipitous decline. It’s true that a number of congregations have shut down, unable to sustain themselves as parishioners move to retirement or nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, be- come homebound or die. But this tells only part of the story.
Not all older people are the same. There are “older adults,” and “middle adults,” the not-quite senior but getting there. And there are centenarians—those 100 years or older—who are the fastest growing population. (Statscan counted 8,230 centenarians in 2016; by 2051, there could be 40,000.)
Seniors come from different socio-economic, political, cultural and where applicable, religious backgrounds; they live in remote, rural, urban, suburban and exurban communities.
Some need pastoral care; others want to offer pastoral care. Some suffer from ailments; others remain healthy. Some are well-off, while others live in poverty. Some are part of a vibrant community; others are alone and isolated.
Churches need to be mindful of these and other differences when introducing ministries and yes, vocations, for seniors. It’s important to recognize that seniors have their own unique needs, but they also have gifts to offer. Some are using time regained in retirement to go back to church, rediscover their faith and be of service to others.
A quick Internet search shows that many Anglican churches across Canada offer ministries for older adults and seniors and their caregivers. Examples include Bible study groups, field trips, lunches with guest speakers, bridge and euchre clubs, seniors’ cafés, Sunday church buses and retirement community Communion.
A few have gone beyond these time- tested programs. There are “dementia- friendly congregations” and those involved in hospice care. One parish has a community program where seniors cook together and share meals and conversations. It also offers computer lessons, art classes and health seminars.
Other parishes have virtual groups. (Boomers on Facebook, anyone?) Others provide meaningful volunteer opportunities that help seniors stay connected, and benefits parishes that can’t afford to hire staff . Some have intergenerational ministries, recognizing that everyone benefits from these interactions.
All these are encouraging signs, but more can be done. For one, the church needs to advocate for issues and concerns of older Canadians, including adequate continuing care, affordable housing, economic insecurity, elder abuse, ageism, quality end-of-life care and access to palliative care.
“Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in ministering to the needs of a growing senior population, both in the community and in institutional settings,” suggests Wilma Mollard, a member of the National Advisory Council on Aging (Saskatchewan).*
Parishes, dioceses and the church as a whole also need to have meaningful and in-depth discussions about aging: How do we view aging from a faith perspective? How do we treat the older persons in our midst? Do we value their wisdom and experiences and learn from them? Do we allow them to participate fully in the life of the church? Are our clergy and lay leaders equipped to care for and work with seniors?
What emerges from these discussions could be helpful in evaluating and creating ministries for, with and by seniors. More importantly, they could help us have a deeper understanding and appreciation of how, regardless of age, we are all one body in Christ.
*Guest editorial, “Aging and the Meaning of Life,” Expression, Newsletter of the National Advisory Council on Aging