WILTON—When Deacon Don Ross visited a group of residents at Middlebrook Farms in Trumbull, he was struck by the comment of one elderly woman during a faith conversation about death and dying. “I don’t want to be forgotten,” she said.
Of the many groups to whom the Diocese of Bridgeport ministers, the elderly are the most most quickly growing, most in need of support, and most worried about being forgotten by society. And parishes may hold the key to affirming and serving them.
To begin addressing ways to ensure they are indeed not “forgotten,” the Leadership Institute of the Diocese of Bridgeport held a summit entitled “Serving Our Older Adults.” This January 27 event at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Wilton brought together over 50 people from Fairfield County including priests, deacons, lay leaders, and representatives from secular at-home care organizations.
“We need to begin the conversation on how to minister to older adults,” said Peter Eder, the event’s keynote speaker and a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Darien. “We see there is a burgeoning population of seniors.”
This realization first came from results of the Diocesan Synod and then from a survey in which parishes were asked to identify essential concerns of its members age 60 and older.
Patrick Donovan, Director of the Leadership Institute, said, “Leaders realized they had to reimagine faith formation at every level – especially with 10,000 baby boomers turning 60 every day.”
With survey responses such as transportation concerns, outreach programs to recognize the ill or homebound, and age- and ability-appropriate events within the parish, churches are aware they are a vital dimension for these people.
“It’s important to discuss what parishes reported as their needs to determine ‘What’s next?’” said Donovan. “How do parishes take the lead in addressing concerns of older adults?”
Following the introductory presentation by Peter Eder which included PowerPoint slides of survey information and statistics, attendees engaged in small group discussions based on the information provided and were encouraged to talk about ways their churches were working with this population and areas in need of expansion or improvement.
Father Frank Hoffmann of St. John’s Church in Darien commented on his parish’s Day of Recollection and Caring Committee as well as their monthly noon Mass and lunch. “Our ‘Chat and Chew’ group usually draws 35-40 people,” Hoffmann said.
Like most people, older adults desire to be included in programs and events within their community, an idea that was shared by many at the summit. Several people mentioned that though the elderly want programs geared toward their needs, they also wish for more opportunities to interact with young people, with one woman saying, “Old people don’t always want to be with old people!”
Nicholas Troilo, a member of Stamford’s Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, said leaders need to recognize the assets older adults have and how to employ them. “We must look at the contributions the elderly can make to us,” he said. “Let’s bring the wisdom of the elderly and the wisdom of the youth together to enrich each other’s faith.”
Tapping into the work of scout groups and local Catholic universities and creating Bible studies with members of all ages were possibilities for merging the interests of different generations. Engaging young people to work with older adults would also assist churches in recruiting new people for existing ministries, including those with positions now held by the aging population.
“We need to find the next generation of who we were,” said Eder, an active member of AARP who was recognized as the recipient of their 2017 community service award.
Father Tim Iannocone of St. Pius X Parish in Fairfield said that this initiative echoes that of Pope Benedict who is quoted as saying “grandparents … are a precious resource.”
While many older adults continue to be active in their towns and parishes, attendees also noted that a large segment are limited in their mobility and require assistance. Residents from Oronoque Village in Stratford mentioned identifying those who need help and making it a priority to maintain regular contact with them. This could include serving them with the sacraments and employing such programs as the Stephen Ministry in which lay people assist their pastors in caring for those in need.
“I keep asking, ‘What can we do?’” said Deacon Ross. “We can’t let barriers prevent us from doing what we need to do for the elderly.”
Organizations from outside the Diocese are also helping to meet those needs. Representatives from Stay at Home in Wilton, At Home in Darien, and the Southwestern Connecticut Agency on Aging attended the Leadership Summit as well, sharing ways they assist both parishes and communities, proving that Fairfield County and the Diocese of Bridgeport are moving in the right direction to ensure that no person is forgotten.
By Emily Clark