By Rev. Dr. Richard Gentzler, Jr.

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran” (Genesis 12:4).

As leaders in ministry, we often hear older adults say they want to stay in their own homes as long as they can. They do not want to move to an assisted care living facility, a continuing care retirement community, or a nursing home.

We describe such thinking as aging in place — defined as living in the home and community of your choice as you age. It is a place where one feels safe has the ability to control and enjoy life experiences.

Support for Aging in Place

Many people support aging in place, especially if an older person seems physically capable of staying put. A recent University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging reports, “88 percent of the survey respondents, who were between 50 and 80 years, said it was somewhat or very important to them to stay in their homes for as long as possible.” ¹

Both my wife and I hope we can remain in our own home as long as possible, often joking that we will only leave when there is a tag on our toe and a sheet covering our head. While remaining at home is a good option for many people, some older adults live in environments ill-suited to meet their needs.

Issues Impacting Aging in Place

Issues impacting whether or not older adults can stay in their homes include financial concerns, health, social activities, maintaining quality of life, and transportation options. Fortunately, there are a growing number of options and community services enabling people to stay in their homes. From basic home modifications to emerging assistive technology to community services, aging in place is more doable than ever before.

How Churches Can Support Aging in Place

Churches, too, often provide important social supports associated with older adults’ well-being. Many congregations provide transportation, regular fellowship meals, and home visitation and maintenance. Churches engaged in intentional ministry by, with, and for older adults can make a significant difference in the positive aging of older adults.

In many cases, churches help provide the means for older adults to age in place. For example, United Methodist Men members at Reidland United Methodist Church, in Paducah, Kentucky, build ramps for people who need an accessible entrance and exit at their homes. Early this year, the 1,000th ramp was built. For more information about the ramp ministry, contact office@reidlandumc.org or visit www.reidlandumc.org.

Another ministry opportunity is adult care — a growing and significant community service ministry many congregations can launch. Adult care ministry can provide needed respite for family caregivers. It can also offer programs to stimulate body, mind, and spirit — keeping frail older adults in the mainstream of life as long as possible.

Brentwood United Methodist Church and other UM congregations in the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference have adult day ministry programs. Older adults with beginning memory loss can spend the day in a safe, welcoming environment while the primary caregiver can attend to personal needs. To learn more about the adult day ministry at Brentwood UMC, contact Rev. Jim Hughes at jhughes@bumc.net. (Note: a more in-depth article about this ministry will appear in a future issue of ENCORE Ministry Connection.)

When Aging in Place May Not Be an Option

While most people want to stay in their home as long as possible, it’s not possible for everyone. For the partner of an older adult with a debilitating condition — such as dementia — the required round-the-clock care may not be financially feasible or realistic. Additionally, some older adults live in environments ill-suited to meet their needs.

Several years ago, my 92-year-old father-in-law decided to change his residence. He had lived in his home almost 60 years but after his wife died, his life changed dramatically. Although he could physically stay in his home, the quality of his life had greatly diminished. Even with the support of family and friends from church, he felt very much alone. After considerable thought, and with the help of family, he decided to move into an assisted living setting. His idea of aging in place became aging in another place.

As people age, social changes can occur between older adults and family and friends. With the death of a spouse, siblings, old friends, and neighbors, life can suddenly become very difficult for older adults. Such loss can lead to isolation unless older adults stay socially active. While getting out and being involved presents opportunities to meet other people, this isn’t always possible for people who no can longer drive or who are shy or have an introverted temperament.

When people lose contemporaries, they have less opportunity to be fully engaged in life. Opportunities to touch others — via a hug or handshake — diminish. While meeting others is possible for people who still drive a car and experience good health, this is not possible for everyone.

Aging in Another Place

Living in an intentional community — such as a continuing care retirement community — might not be for everyone. Even if an older person lives in such a community he or she may still feel isolated and alone.

However, opportunities exist for increased contact with others — gathering together for meals, social and recreational opportunities, and worship and religious services. The mental, physical, and social stimulations that occur can have a positive impact on the well-being of older adults.

Church leaders should keep in mind that encouraging older adults to remain in their own homes might not always be feasible or the best solution. Invite an honest and open conversation with older persons and their family members to make a realistic assessment of both needs and desires. Helpful resources are available throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. Check with your local Area Agency on Aging & Disability. If you live in Middle Tennessee, contact AgeWell Middle Tennessee at 1-615-353-4235 or visit www.agewelltn.org.

While a variety of living options are available to older adults — from aging in place to aging in another place — a primary goal is helping older persons experience God’s presence and love no matter where they live. Like Abram (Abraham), being attentive to our own needs and discerning the will of God when we are older, can make a powerful difference in our later years.

¹ “How to Age-Proof Your Home” by Janet Siroto, Consumer Reports, January 2023

Dr. Richard Gentzler, director, oversees ENCORE Ministry’s mission of providing older adult ministry resources, leader training, and consultations. For more information, email Gentzler at rgentzler@encoreministry.org or call 615-400-0539.