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Church must use gifts of older adults, leader says

The Rev. Rick Gentzler and Teri Kline listen to a presentation at the United Methodist Committee on Older Adults meeting in Nashville, Tenn. UMNS photos by Jeanette Pinkston.

By Jeanette Pinkston*
March 16, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The world's elderly population has nearly quadrupled in the last 50 years, and The United Methodist Church needs to find a way to use "this incredible resource," said the Rev. Rick Gentzler Jr.

The elderly population increased from 130 million in 1950 to 419 million in 2000, according to a report by Gentzler, director of the Center on Aging and Older Adult Ministries of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

He outlined the trends in aging that will impact the global church and society during the United Methodist Committee on Older Adults meeting March 8-12.

Gentzler suggested that The United Methodist Church identify a modern purpose of a longer, healthier old age and seek to answer the questions: “To what use do we put the incredible resource of elderhood, and what are the new models of old age for our coming maturity?”

Gabriel Unda Yemba, United Methodist Board of Discipleship member from the Democratic Republic of Congo, addresses the gathering as Judith A. Ball, Board of Global Ministries member, listens.

Two key proposals in the Comprehensive Plan for Older Adult Ministries for the 2009-2012 period include training a cadre of volunteer caregivers to interact with the growing number of older adults, and modeling intentional intergenerational ministry, in which older adults serve as mentors or coaches to young people.

From a global standpoint, the world’s population is aging at an accelerated rate due in part to declining fertility rates and improvements in life expectancy.

“Over the next 14 years, the number of people over 50 in the U.S. will grow 74 percent, while people under 50 will increase by only 1 percent,” according to research conducted by Edwin J. Pittock, president of the Society of Certified Senior Advisors.

Sixty-two percent of The United Methodist Church’s members are 50 years old or older, while nearly 50 percent are 60 or older, Gentzler said.

Trends in aging

The plan highlights the following trends that will impact the global church and society.

  • More people are living longer. The population of those 65 and over will increase from 35 million in 2000 to 72 million by 2030.
  • Current markers of old age are changing, which means that increasing longevity will not only postpone the arrival of old age but will also cause all of the stages of life to shift significantly.
  • As people are living longer, there will be a pandemic of chronic disease, which will result in increased need for community-based services.
  • Dementia is expected to increase, with Alzheimer’s disease potentially affecting 11 million to 16 million people by 2050.
  • With fewer children being born and more older adults living longer, the U.S. could experience a crisis in family care giving. Globally a growing number of grandparents are raising grandchildren.
  • Increasingly, the growing cost of health care has led to discussions about limiting the health care of older adults through rationing.
  • Financial insecurity brought on by challenges to Social Security and Medicare and changes in pensions could lead to a future with massive elder poverty. (Most U.S. seniors are neither wealthy nor living in poverty.)
  • Many older adults will continue to work long hours after “the normal” age of retirement because of career interests, a desire to stay productive, fear of unstable Social Security coverage, dwindling retirement investments and the fact that some simply can’t afford to retire.

Addressing the needs

Intergenerational equity is paramount to address ageism and the belief that all generations should be given the chance to express concerns about their stage of life with equal weight and power, Gentzler said.

Declining church attendance, in light of the myth that older adults have a mature Christian faith, points to the need to get people involved in care giving and religious education, he said. Only 42 percent of older adults in the United States attend religious services on a regular basis.

In other action, the committee approved grants, prepared for a symposium and worked on legislation for the 2008 United Methodist General Conference.

The Committee on Older Adult Ministries provides a forum for information sharing, cooperative planning, and joint program endeavors in collaboration with participating boards and agencies. It serves as an advocate for older adult concerns and issues and supports ministries by, with and for older adults throughout The United Methodist Church and in the larger society.

*Pinkston is director of media relations for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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