Christian experts agree — the older we grow, the more we need the family of God.
You have probably seen alarming newspaper stories about elderly people and residential care homes over the last couple of years.
You might have read headlines like, ‘Alice Knight, 108, starves herself to death’, following a forced move from her nursing home, which was closing, to another.
Only recently, a widow of 102 is said to have died 17 days after being evicted from a care home to make way for a more profitable, private resident.
Perhaps the saddest news concerned a former missionary, who died 10 days after being moved from his care home. ‘After spending years bringing running water, schools and electricity to hundreds of people in Africa, he died alone aged 94 after becoming another victim of the country’s care home crisis.’
Crisis in care
There is no doubt that there is a crisis, as care homes struggle to meet spiralling costs and shrinking funds. But the most ominous phrase is that he ‘died alone’ — for apart from their physical welfare, the most important element in the life of older Christians is fellowship with other believers.
Pilgrim Homes was founded in 1807 specifically to care for the Lord’s ‘aged pilgrims’. Initially, the society paid small pensions to elderly Christians who had no other means of support.
Although society has moved on since then, many still face physical and financial frailty, often alone. Nowadays, Pilgrim Homes looks after them in residential care homes and sheltered (and very sheltered) housing schemes in different parts of the country.
Our homes have a harmony that comes from the shared beliefs of residents and senior staff, and are renowned for their loving care.
But our managers sometimes wonder if our emphasis on the spiritual life of the homes, with regular devotions and ministry, makes residents’ churches think that all their needs are being met.
‘It is so sad when visits gradually fall off’, says Phil Willis, co-manager of the Wellsborough home. ‘Because a person’s sense of self is tied up with their past lives. Our daily spiritual input into the home does serve the residents well, but the missing ingredient is the fellowship with believers from the past.
‘Older brothers and sisters in Christ need to know that they have not been forgotten by “the family”.’ He adds that telephone calls and letters are also important.
Loss of trust
This loss of fellowship comes at the worst possible time, when an elderly saint is already coping with losses of all kinds.
Roger Hitchings is a Midlands pastor and a former Director of Age Concern, with extensive experience in the fields of ageing and disability. He observes that old age is marked by loss — the gradual loss of loved ones and friends who have been trusted over the years, and the loss of physical, and sometimes mental, ability.
He says this is often accompanied by a loss of trust, even in themselves. More than ever, elderly Christians need encouragement and reassurance, and this is where the family of God is so important.
He emphasises the importance of regular visits, and building friendships that lead to spiritual help and encouragement.
‘When you are struggling with a loss of trust in yourself, even, it is easy to doubt the genuineness of your salvation, and frail elderly Christians may need pointing over and over again to God who cannot lie, and who is a strong rock and fortress.’
Pastor and former missionary Philip Grist is one of Pilgrim Homes’ army of supporters. He takes services in the homes, and finds it both rewarding and humbling.
‘These are men and women who have walked with God for many years’, he explains. ‘They have passed through the deep waters as well as times of great joy. They desire the riches of the Word of God, and often respond with much enthusiasm and … deep emotion.’
Staff and supporters in Pilgrim Homes go many ‘extra miles’ to make up residents’ losses. There is a strong, family atmosphere.
Winifred Desmond, 96, who still lives with her family in Trowbridge but whose sister lived in a Pilgrim Home before she died, said, ‘You can feel the care as you go through the door’.
Encouragement is not only ‘top down’ from staff — residents also pray for staff and encourage one another. They will stop to hug a manager in the corridor and tell her, ‘You were looking tired yesterday, so we prayed for you in the evening’.
Residents also evangelise quite naturally, as they have done all their lives. When an inspector from the newly-formed National Care Standards Commission visited the home in Wellsborough, she explained to one 103-year-old that she was there because of a change in the law.
He asked her if she knew the worst law there ever was, and when she said ‘no’ he told her that it was that man is a law unto himself — and proceeded to tell her the gospel.
An 87-year-old former surgeon who spent a large part of his life helping leprosy sufferers in India continues to proof-read translations of the Old Testament into Tamil. There are many similar stories.
One sturdy 90-year-old loved street evangelism. Wearing sandwich boards with gospel verses, he would regularly catch a bus near the home to join a group in the town centre. Once, when he failed to turn up, the bus driver leaned out and asked the queue: ‘Where’s John 3:16 today?’
Far from useless
After living an active Christ-centred life, it is hard to feel that physical and mental frailty have shunted you off into the sidings to rust. It is easy to imagine that you are useless and no longer important to God.
Philip Grist insists: ‘Far from being useless, elderly Christians are still in the front-line of battle. The greatest battles are fought in prayer. God gives them an unhindered ministry of prayer and they don’t have to move a finger’.
He has been asked: ‘What’s the use of preaching to people with dementia? They can’t understand, can they?’ He replies: ‘Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
‘What is the use, you could ask, of preaching in the open air to people who have absolutely no interest, and who are spiritually dead and completely unable to understand the gospel? It is the Holy Spirit who unlocks the hearts of lifeless sinners, and in the same way, he unlocks the confused minds of his elderly people.’
He continues: ‘Many years ago I remember a resident who had severe Alzheimer’s disease. She had a very sweet nature and a lovely smile, but would sit quietly in her chair, with a completely vacant look.
‘On one occasion, as I gave my text, her eyes came alive and were riveted on me the whole time I was preaching. When I concluded, the vacant look immediately returned. It was so clear that the Holy Spirit had communicated the word of God to her soul during the preaching.
‘The whole experience radically changed my attitude towards preaching to God’s children — although he normally communicates via the mind to the soul, a now-confused mind is no barrier to him. The work is God’s, not ours.’
Much to give
One of our greatest battles is recruiting staff, even among Christians mindful of the Scriptures that teach us to care for one another. Staff also have less time to sit and talk to residents because of increasing government regulation creating paperwork and red tape.
Each of our homes has a Home Support Group that prays for our management teams and staff, and arranges speakers for services. There is also a group of Home Visitors, who spend time building personal relationships with residents, praying with them and encouraging them.
Even five minutes of quality conversation can strengthen the soul, and much can be learned about faith itself through speaking with elderly residents, who often have much to give.
Helping at home
In their own homes, too, elderly people need fellowship — and sometimes a little practical help. Changing a light-bulb can be a major exercise when you are wobbly on your feet. Writing an official letter, or filling in forms can be onerous, too.
But the main need for our frail elderly brothers and sisters in Christ is fellowship and reassurance in the gospel. It can be five minutes or an hour, but the effect is incalculable.
The benefits are mutual — more often than not there is a peacefulness and graciousness about elderly saints that younger people find refreshing, and stabilising.
We love and care for our elderly brothers and sisters in Christ because we love the Lord. It is a great privilege to minister to people whose next step is to stand before the Lord himself.
More information about the work of Pilgrim Homes from www.pilgrimhomes. org.uk, or by emailing info@pilgrimhomes. org.uk. Telephone 020 7407 5466. Postal address: 175 Tower Bridge Road, London SE1 2AL.