“Growing old is not for sissies,” my grandmother used to quip. She would know as she lived to be just 2 days shy of her 100th birthday.
As people age, they tend to suffer a series of losses:
- loss of the senses – hearing, sight, taste
- loss of friends and relatives whom they outlive
- loss of work or a sense of purpose (in many cases)
- loss of driving and the freedom & independence that brings
- loss of control over life generally with increased medical problems, doctor visits, perhaps where the senior needs to live for health or financial reasons
- loss of a social life (with the living situation & end of driving)
- loss of memory for many (or general confusion in some cases)
All of these can be a source for feeling left out and alienated. But as they start stacking up, these mounting losses can pave the way for depression and at times leave the individual pining for death and remove the desire to go to church or feel like a part of the community.
What can be done to help regarding alienation, the elderly, and the church?
Some elderly people stop going to church or religious services even though in the past it was life-giving for them because the effort has become so great and once they get there, the acoustics may not be good for them to hear what is going on (and in many cases they may not be able to see what is happening either). In a large place of worship, they may be too far away to be able to follow, so attending may be an exercise in frustration for them. They are surrounded by others but definitely feel alone.
A smaller setting may still work well, though. Home Masses, when available, can be a huge blessing since everyone is close together and it’s easier to see and hear, plus it’s generally calmer so overall easier to follow. For many retirees, though, this is not an option. Some may find a smaller church community, such as we find at hospitals or college campuses, where the crowds and setting are both more intimate. Independent, assisted living or nursing homes may have chapels with weekend services offered. This, too, can be an enormous boon. Sometimes, though, even when available, it’s not quite right. I’ll share one family experience.
My mother in law used to live in a large retirement community on the east coast with multiple levels of care and a beautiful, large campus which included a lovely chapel. The local bishop there would not permit the priests in his diocese to say Mass there on Sundays, but instead told the residents that they could “go on Friday” and have it count for their weekly obligation. Why, we might wonder, did the bishop prohibit Mass on campus on Sundays? (Priests were willing.) The answer was startling: he wanted them to instead attend at the nearby Catholic parish church.
If we are to try to give this bishop the benefit of the doubt, perhaps his intention was to keep these older Catholics feeling like they are a part of the larger community and to not become shut off from normal life. Maybe he wanted them to feel the vibrancy of a more diverse community. Possibly … possibly he never knew an elderly person for whom boarding a shuttle bus would be a huge challenge, let alone trying to hear and see the priest and lectors in a large parish church. Perhaps he didn’t understand that most of the music might be hard for them to hear (or to take). Or that many church buildings have dim lighting and the missals and song books are nearly impossible to read (even for younger eyes).
Regardless of his intentions, the outcome was dismal. Many older Catholics could not feel good about going to Mass only on Fridays after a lifetime of going on Sundays. They felt out of sync with the universal Church and their own sense of what was right. Going to the parish was alienating for many as they couldn’t hear or see well enough to participate as they’d like. At least at the smaller chapel setting, they could follow along.
Not every Catholic has a parish as the primary church experience and it should be remembered that it is not the first or most important experience of church – the family is. Those in religious orders may have Mass in their communities – large or small. Students at universities usually attend at the Newman Center or other Catholic chapel or church. Some elderly Catholics may enjoy a vibrant religious community in their retirement circles. Health care workers and patients may attend weekly at a hospital. Military personnel and families often collect for worship on a base.
Parishes can be fabulous centers for Catholic life, but they are not exclusively where the faithful gather to worship, serve, and hopefully to grow in grace and love. In many cases, they may be less than ideal for frail, sickly, or extremely elderly people, who are in many ways among the most vulnerable and easily isolated in society.
Rather than alienating them by forcing worship in a large, loud setting (and which is hard for them to get to), let’s refocus on creating or strengthening community where it already exists. As Catholics, we are pretty good in hospitals, campuses and military bases. How much better if we could universally accommodate seniors too.
Within parishes, much can be done to improve the experience for the elderly and those with disabilities generally. Many parishes are working toward this in ways great and small, from ramps for those with mobility impairments to assistance for others with hearing or sight challenges. These concrete, physical improvements make a statement that all are welcome.
Additionally, many parishes have some sort of health ministry or outreach to the sick or those with chronic conditions that leave them unable to attend Mass. (They may also host support groups for families dealing with death, dying, or other major losses or health care burnout as long term support of ill family members can be exhausting and have seriously negative effects on the family as a whole.) Volunteers, staff, deacons or priests may visit shut ins and bring them companionship and communion, or offer to just visit. These, too, speak volumes that each and every person counts, and that the lives of those who are hard of hearing, sight impaired, or stuck in bed matter to the greater community. Some patients or shut-ins won’t want the visits, but the offer of assistance alone will help to curb the sense of alienation which can seep in with so many physical, social, and emotional challenges that accompany one’s final years.