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Embracing a shifting demographic

Baby Boomers are far and away the most surveyed generation of all time. Researchers and marketers have sought out the opinions of this influential generation since they were old enough to talk. Over the years, the survey questions have changed along with Boomers, and now the most pressing question on the minds of healthcare researchers is, “Where do you plan to live as you age?”

Not surprisingly, for 85 percent of Canadians over 55, the resounding answer is “home.” This answer is making policy makers both pleased and nervous. On the one hand, people remaining in their own homes comfortably and safely for as long as possible will reduce the strain anticipated by long-term care facilities. But then again, there’s no guarantee that this will continue to be a practical goal for that 85 percent as they go through the aging process.

But for all the questions being asked, I’ve yet to hear, “What can the Church do to ensure these ambitions are possible?” After all, indications are that the surrounding community has the biggest part to play in what’s being called “aging-in-place.” To determine our response to this challenge, it can help to look at the needs that people aging-in-place are likely to look to the community for, and how how our churches are positioned to meet those needs.

Practical matters
The simple fact is that most houses were designed with the relatively young and physically able in mind. There are all kinds of barriers in a typical home that can make it difficult to live comfortably as we age physically. How to address this may depend on individual skills and talents. I’ve noticed caring neighbours helping out older residents by offering help with household chores, shovelling a snow-covered driveway and even rebuilding a battered chimney. I have been part of a church that instigated a series of “Super Saturdays,” mobilizing teams of volunteers to provide whatever practical assistance local residents needed. Any homeowner can tell you there’s no shortage of upkeep needed, and that’s unlikely to get easier over time.

Physical and emotional health
Maintaining good health is every bit as important a factor as the quality of the surrounding community in determining the ultimate success of an aging-in-place plan. But what’s really interesting is the ways in which the two can overlap. For example, the “walkability” of a community can play a huge role. When people are within walking distance of the amenities they regularly use, it takes care of a practical need (transportation), and also promotes regular exercise, which is crucial to our health as we age. Many churches are noticing the capability of their facilities to host exercise programs specifically geared toward local seniors. A few have even worked through the logistics of implementing regular nursing clinics on the premises.

In many ways, emotional health has been known to be the larger issue for people aging-in-place. Without adequate community involvement, depression can set in over time – particularly for those living on their own, perhaps even dealing with the loss of a spouse. Again, programs aimed at addressing emotional health have been emerging, but perhaps the more practical focus would be enabling people to engage the community in meaningful ways.

Community involvement
Creating vibrant, flourishing communities is a goal that has consumed many a planner – not just for the sake of seniors wanting to remain in the area, but for the well being of all residents across every generation. A well planned, engaging community can provide residents with a sense of belonging – but only if they are willing and able to involve themselves in it. I believe that a church positioned in the community affords just such an opportunity. Attending services and programs throughout the week is beneficial, but many congregations are learning to go further.

I’m reminded of an initiative I read about recently from a Mennonite congregation, who noticed a decidedly older shift in their demographics and struggled with how to continue to serve this older generation while still remaining relevant to their youth. The decision was made to pair off their members, one from a younger generation, one from an older one. The only requirement was that each pair would check in on each other at least twice a year. That’s it. Just two phone calls and you’re done. But of course that was rarely it. Generations began intermingling as never before, and suddenly that vibrant, flourishing community was happening right there between their own walls.

Now imagine what would happen if, while this was going on within the church, members started applying the same principle to their neighbourhoods. Like the two phone call requirement, it wouldn’t have to start with a big commitment. It could be as simple as offering a ride to a neighbour who would normally use public transit. Maybe it turns into more, maybe not. Worst-case scenario, you’re offering a little kindness in a world that has been starved of it for too long.

Service opportunities
Just as churches and communities can provide a sense of belonging, they also offer a sense of purpose. This is a factor almost never discussed in relation to aging-in-place. But providing opportunities to serve can feed into many of the other needs just discussed. Service can engage a person in their community, provide an opportunity to be of practical assistance to others and address emotional health in a way that few other activities can. The key is to encourage the involvement of all ages in a variety of service projects. Often the life experience that seniors are able to share with others puts them in a unique position to minister to younger members of the church.

Caring for caregivers
Family caregivers are an often-overlooked group in the aging-in-place landscape. This can include adult children who are sharing the home, or family members living separately but committed to ensuring their loved one’s living arrangement is a safe one. The experience varies widely, and can be as casual as a weekly visit or a joint trip to the doctor. In other cases, it means helping an aging parent manage a difficult diagnosis such as Alzheimer’s. The stress of dealing with situations like this on a daily basis can often lead to caregiver burnout. Thankfully, some churches have made an effort to look after the overworked caregiver. Respite programs are beginning to spring up, designed to give caregivers a break in their routine. These programs provide a safe environment and engaging programming geared toward people in a variety of states of physical and mental fitness. Running parallel with this are programs intended to re-energize their caregivers, or to provide them with the chance to recharge in whatever way they see fit.

Even if a caregiver is not as run down as that, knowing that someone else is making the effort to help their loved one can provide peace of mind, particularly for family members who live further away.

Making it personal
The glue that holds this all together, though, is personal interaction. Through visiting with shut-ins, checking in on an elderly neighbour or volunteering for a companionship program, we can begin to establish the trusted relationships that will allow us to discover what a person truly needs. And perhaps along the way we’ll discover that getting to know someone from an older generation is exactly what we need, too.


  • Michael Saunders is an architectural designer and home accessibility consultant. He enjoys exploring the many ways our built environment impacts our lives, and helping people adapt their homes to meet their changing needs. Michael lives in Courtice, Ont. with his wife and three kids.

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