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The Graying of the American Churches : Religious Leaders Discuss Responsibilities to the Nation’s Burgeoning Elderly Population

Times Staff Writer

Aging can become a means to increase spirituality, “a way to light,” Arthur S. Flemming said in keynoting a recent two-day program here at the 32nd annual meeting of the American Society on Aging.

While Flemming, 80, spoke of an opportunity for the elderly to “grow by giving, mature to giving” by helping others, the panel responding to his remarks on aging and spirituality found America’s religions perplexed by the burgeoning of an older population that has never before existed.

Flemming, secretary of Housing, Education and Welfare under President Eisenhower and a member of the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, presently chairs the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights in Washington. Flemming also chaired the 1961 and 1971 White House conferences on aging.

He spoke first of the increased interest in aging, an interest that he hopes will extend to those “who are going to assume leadership positions in congregations,” which hold “untapped resources” for the older population.

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Innate Source

Flemming contended that progress is being made, that theologians are beginning to focus on spirituality as an innate resource.

“Our spirituality can make the difference between aging being the way to darkness or the way to the light,” he said. “There are older people for whom there is only darkness, no sign of color, no one to be trusted, resentment, jealousy and, sometimes, rage. There is segregation and loss of self.”

But, he said, aging can become “a way of light.” He urged greater contributions from the elderly to society as well as more support for the weaker elderly by those who are younger.

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Caring begins by obeying the commandment “you find underlined in the Old and New testaments: Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Flemming said.

“That does not place responsibility to like my neighbor. We can’t be commanded to like someone; that must be a feeling from within,” he said.

“We love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not always like ourselves.” Flemming asked his audience to consider the implications of older people implementing the commandment.

“There are people desperately in need of home care and it is difficult to recruit people, either paid or those who work as volunteers. Here is an opportunity to work to help some persons in their home to achieve their possibilities.

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Latchkey Children

“And what does it say to us as we read about latchkey children? In Washington we have a hot line, a way for latchkey children to have access to persons who hopefully can be of help to them. Founded at the suggestion of the public school system, the hot line for latchkey children literally has been swamped with calls.

“I have urged them (the hot line people) to reach out to groups with older persons to come in and handle those calls.

“What does our commitment say to us as we confront the whole area of poverty in community after community? What kind of support should we give to public programs for the needs of the poor?”

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While Flemming described the greater attention to the inner person as good, he said it should be accompanied and followed by “re-engagement . . . a moving from disengagement to re-engagement.”

He also called on the elderly to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens by applying political pressure, making contributions in public life and international relations.

In implementing the commandment to love thy neighbor, Flemming, a Methodist layman who headed the National Council of Churches for three years, said that “there are no waivers, not for certain persons, no waiver for age, no hiding place as far as this commandment is concerned.

“We can also stress that for those who follow this there is great strength and great joy.”

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After Flemming’s keynote address, the following panelists were introduced by Betty J. Letzig, chairwoman of the programs on “Religion, Spirituality and Aging” and immediate past president of the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging, which co-sponsored the program Sunday and Monday:

The Panel Members

Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, San Francisco; Msgr. Charles Fahey, director, Third Age Center, Fordham University, New York; Michael C. Hendrickson Ph.D., senior research scientist, Center for Health and Social Services Research Inc., Los Angeles; and Yvonne Rand, ordained Zen Buddhist priest and co-director of the Zen Center, Sausalito.

Sparer responded first to Flemming’s presentation, noting that the Jewish admonition to “honor thy father and thy mother” specifically omits the word love.

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“The word honor is rooted in the word for weight and honor is a commitment in this regard,” Sparer said, “whereas love is an emotion. Judaism stresses that the parent-child relationship is for all of life.

“The child must succeed in his own life and be a sustenance to his parents emotionally and financially.”

Sparer told of working for the New York welfare system during an internship. His duties included visiting adult children of those in need of public assistance, including an affluent son of Jewish parents who proclaimed he would give “not a dime” to support his parents.

“We have 78,000 yuppies dedicated to going to Tahoe,” Sparer said, wondering how many see or assist their parents. “We need some 1950s’ discipline. Otherwise, the parents are going to disengage.”

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Spontaneous Applause

Sparer elicited spontaneous applause with a remark that “we must take a keen look and quit teaching juvenile religion.”

He remarked that social workers in the field, “many of whom have no commitment to any religion,” must want the elderly to engage in society, in contrast to the situation in many institutions dedicated to “bromizing,” or tranquilizing, the elderly.

“We must dedicate ourselves to the years we are dealt,” Sparer said. “Our colleges have done it (with programs for older persons).

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“With regard to churches and synagogues, if we are tax-free we must return to the community, and day care is not enough. . . .

“There is a coupling here. Spirituality, religion and aging cannot be divorced from any other aspect of aging.”

Fahey recalled addressing the World Assembly on Aging (in Vienna) in 1982 as a spokesman for the Holy See.

Changing the Word

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“My topic was spirituality as distinct from religion. After a while someone came up to me and said: ‘I don’t know if you realize it but every time you use the word spirituality the interpreter changes it to psychological .’ ”

Fahey shrugged, neither in agreement nor disagreement, then continued.

“Spirituality is the quest for holiness. That does not lead necessarily to tranquillity, nor to emotional well-being. The most revered saints of the Roman Catholic Church fall into that category of suffering, not the least of whom was St. Francis, for whom this city is named.

“The quest for spirituality involves, first, status: being graced with a special relationship with God. Second, we try to live in accord with what God wants us to do,” which involves the mystery of the interaction of grace with the ethical and moral. This involves behavior.

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“Third, spirituality is very lonely and very personal. Each of us will write a chapter in spiritual history, a matter of personal conscience.

“It is individual but there also is a sense of community, a relationship with others in the struggle.”

Speaking as a social scientist, Fahey referred to aging as a paradigm: “Aging as a state and aging as a process. . . . Death is a paradox--an ending but a new beginning.”

Fahey said that the widely held notion that older people are more religious is not true.

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“We do not become religious because we are old,” he said. “It is a matter that religious people become old.”

He also disputed the idea that older Catholics have been resistant to the changes of Vatican II, acknowledging that the reforms made some people uneasy but said that the vast majority find the changes quite positive. He then spoke of a far deeper change in the Catholic church’s perception of God:

“There is a change in the predominant, prevailing image of God, a change from the great reverence and great mystery.

“The old thinking was of God as a just judge, as if God were a bookkeeper keeping track of bad things and good things, adding up points.

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“That has changed to more of a notion of a loving father, and that was the one (description) that Jesus used, the picture of God as a father.”

As the increasing number of elderly brings new situations, Fahey said, God’s people have a responsibility to try to understand their new commitment.

“We have been given the gift of a longer and more fruitful life, a third age,” Fahey said. “I must go back to the basics. We need reflection and interiority; neither family nor work will fill that need.”

Likened to Pioneers

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Hendrickson, who also is project director in care of the National Symposium on the Church and Aging sponsored by the Lutheran Council of the USA, likened the issue of the elderly to the frontier faced by the pioneers in their wagon trains 125 years ago.

“I have the growing empty feeling we’re standing on something so vast, so profound,” Hendrickson said.

“We have dangers. We try to understand with too little (information), and I am afraid that we will come up with solutions that will take us only about 15 miles down that trail (across the continent).

“Changes in the next 15 to 20 years will dwarf what we know about aging. They will be as dramatic as the changes in the last 80 years in our society--family, education, housing, transportation.

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“To use a metaphor, we are on the crest of a huge societal tidal wave and we don’t know where it will crest.

“I see aging essentially as uncharted turf. It reminds me of the first rough maps of the Northwest Territory mapped by Lewis and Clark. They filled in certain points that California still sort of reached in and touched Kansas.

“Basically we don’t know much. If that is happening in other aspects, it certainly is happening in our churches.”

He turned to the matter of space: Where do we belong?

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“There is social space. What does elder mean? We have no social reference,” Hendrickson said. “We studied nursing homes and found that 30% to 40% of the residents didn’t belong there.

“Where do they belong in government? Education? The health system? We define the place of the aging by the amount of money we spend on them, so we define aging as a health program. It is not appropriate.

“With inner space, development, we have no prior examples. What does older mean? What are the struggles of identity at 70 and 75 and 80 and 85 and 90? Those are changes in internal space.

“I know a man who is 83 and has faced these problems. He told me, ‘Aging is not for sissies.’ ”

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Lessons of Elderly

Rand, a Buddhist priest since 1971, said that much of her work has been with the elderly and adolescents--"both states of life when everything is up for grabs.” She said the dying have been her greatest teachers.

“The elderly finally can’t remember things, friends die, things change,” she said. “The meeting with dependence comes as a shock.

“There is a time of letting go and finishing business. There also is a time when you want to be of use to someone.”

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Rand told of visiting friends in India in which four generations lived together. The family was building a house designed especially to accommodate all of the generations, including the servants’ multigeneration families.

Then she spoke of her own parents:

“I want my parents to come live with me. They’re not ready. They want to be independent.”


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