The Deacons' Care for the Elderly
The apostle Paul quotes the OT (Rom 5:15/ Isaiah 52:7) “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Surely that describes the diaconal ministry of Christ’s church, as well as the other ministries, for His servants are to be the feet, the hands, the heart and the mouthpiece of the Master. We learn from Acts 6 that the deacon’s work is a servant ministry, serving the disadvantaged, looking to the needs of those discriminated against, organising charitable action so that the needy are properly cared for. The apostle Paul urges the believers to carry each others’ burdens and to do so responsibly, moving the assisted towards independence, avoiding the creation of greater dependence (Gal 6:2, 5).
Issues with age
For the purpose of this article we need to ask, who are the elderly in need of care? To this we could say, those who have accumulated a certain number of years – and we could even set a particular age. However it is surely more a matter of issues that arise with accumulated years. For one, those difficulties could arise in his seventies or even eighties, while for another they may present themselves in his forties. Well, what issues? Physical or mental health, mobility, social independence, isolation to name some. Some are old before their time. Others cope with advanced years very well. Aging manifests its presence in many guises. In our era of history a few may attain the age of one hundred years and still be active in body or mind or both. But even so there will be deficits. For certain people their contemporary loved ones and friends will almost all have passed on. Their own children likely have predeceased them. There will be a loneliness, fatigue of body, most probably worn and creaking joints and maybe some artificial ones as well. Others, much younger, will be surviving on extensive cocktails of modern therapeutic drugs, or with aids such as for hearing, failing sight, faltering heart or poor mobility. Many of the surviving elderly will be maimed by dementia, Alzheimers or strokes that seriously impair mental and/or social faculties, while others will be affected physically with paralysis, speech impediment or body function control.
Younger relatives and able-bodied persons will almost always understand a physical disability, i.e. a broken limb, more easily than a broken mind, memory or personality.
Who are we dealing with?
As we relate to the elderly and the sick we must always remember that we are dealing with a person, no matter how disabled in body or mind; a person who has a history, who entered this world as a tiny baby, who, as a child, negotiated the years of school, attained adult status and achieved much in life. Every life is interesting, packed with unique experiences, if only we have the time and patience to listen and ask questions. How I now wish I had taken the time to ask questions and to listen to my now-deceased parents while they were still alive, and write down interesting snippets that are now lost forever!
Some families will have to grieve for a relative, maybe an elderly relative, because they are no longer compos mentis (of sound mind) even though they physically remain with us.
Principles for action
There are a number of principles that we ought to keep firmly in mind. Let me mention them now. A first we have already alluded to. Every human is made in the image of our Maker, and we, as God’s sons and daughters, are to respect them as God’s ambassadors in our lives. A second is that in our family settings we are called to honour our parents. A third is that we are to love our neighbour as we love and look after ourselves. The fourth is the golden rule to do to others as we would have others do to us. In these we have a set of principles to guide us in our relationships within the human family – and not just with our seniors – but remember, they do apply there also. However, the primary responsibility for the care of the elderly must surely rest with the family.
But now in the world of the 21st century how does this work out? We live in a very mobile society. Families become scattered as a result of travel, because of pursuing suitable work or professional opportunities, or because of emigration or oppression, to mention some factors. This can lead to marriage with a spouse whose roots are in a distant country or place, or to relocation because sons or daughters have moved from home soil. Many in our Reformed Churches in NZ will be painfully aware of the tensions that this can create.
Caring for the neglected
When the apostles, aided by the community of faith, appointed the first deacons (Acts 6) they invested them with the responsibility of caring for a neglected section of that community, the Hellenistic Jewish widows. Is this not then at the core of the diaconal task, to look out for the disadvantaged or neglected, for whatever reason, in our present day church and community? Let us quote then the brief article (10) in our RCNZ Church Order dealing with the office of Deacons:
Duties of Deacons The task of the deacons is: to diligently collect alms and other contributions of charity, to faithfully and diligently distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require after mutual counsel, to visit and comfort the distressed, to encourage the congregation to show Christian mercy to those in need at home and abroad, to render an account to the session.
In practical terms what does this mean regarding the frail or perhaps lonely elderly? Not necessarily that the deacons have to take on board the personal care as the primary care giver. But I suggest it does require a duty to be aware of the circumstances and to determine the level and the need and then how best, with the resources of the church, to be of assistance. The person may be in a rest home or a hospital so that health and physical welfare are taken care of; but the need is social and spiritual. It may be that living at home they really need a regular carer to make contact, to assist with shopping, transport to the G.P., supervision of medication, help with correspondence, maintenance of the lawns and garden, and perhaps many other necessities. Who is there within the congregation that is fitted to meet such needs and should be challenged to undertake this task as an ongoing responsibility, or maybe even to take on Enduring Power of Attorney for personal or property care? Such commitments may be only brief because of demise, but may last for years. I know of a case where this lasted for a considerable time because the elderly person in question lived just beyond the 103rd birthday. It may be that the church eldership should be alerted to the inability of the member to attend worship and Lord’s Supper; and that there is the need to provide recorded worship services and communion in the home.
Special area of spiritual care
Earlier I mentioned the not infrequent situation where the invalid has lost the power of communication and where the personality appears to have radically changed. This type of health deterioration and indeed many forms of senility and frailty tax the perseverance and the faithful regular attention of a healthy spouse, son or daughter, or caring friend. These heroic and wonderfully dedicated carers themselves need support, comfort and encouragement. We ought to have great respect for people of such dedication and perseverance. This is an area of very special spiritual care that cries out for the attention of the church. Deacons could assist by arranging for suitable people to give respite to the carers on a regular basis. Even two hours a week could be a tremendous help. While it is not direct care for the elderly it is certainly an indirect form that will impact on how the carer can perform.
It has often exercised my mind as to God’s purposes in allowing sufferers, many of them elderly, to languish on and on. The best answer that I am able to put forward is that God allows that trial to test those of us who have a duty of care; who are healthy, able, and have the time to prove our faithfulness in service. To use the apostle’s words let us encourage the carers to be steadfast, undeterred, always abounding in their vigilance and care. This too can be a strategically important spiritual ministry of the deacons.
Need to know about services
There are many retirement villages, rest homes, geriatric hospitals, organisations and institutions that exist to give specialised help and care to those who are aging. The current NZ government policy aims to make provision for seniors in their homes as long as practically possible, this through DHBs and their contracted providers. It is well for deacons to be aware of these provisions and of where information can be accessed so as to direct seniors, or most likely their carers, to providers. It could even be possible to have one member of the congregation appointed to advise how to access the various services available.
The RCNZ churches were founded mainly by immigrants and enlarged their membership from that same source. I would think that in most cases parents have been left behind, if for no other reason than that residency for older folk is not easily gained in NZ. In some cases maintenance may have been sent off shore to assist parents and families. At a support level for parents there will have been a dislocation; or the responsibilities have been left to siblings in the mother country. Is there not a challenge in such situations, whereby such couples could adopt an in-need senior in the expectation that the left-behind parents are being cared for by such an adoption?
Deacons as executors
In our early years of church ministry, when our children were very young and we were far flung from close family, in our wills we appointed deacons to be the executors. Spinsters, bachelors, childless widows and widowers may consider this as an option in their wills.
When young, most of us consider ourselves immune to death. When maturity makes us more realistic about our mortality we then wish to slip away painlessly in our sleep and to die within hours of our spouse. All would prefer to end our days spared from the ravages of disease, strokes or heart attacks. But the reality is mostly different. All God’s children would surely wish to die with a beautiful graciousness. They do indeed die in grace. But often God’s children, in old age, are overwhelmed by health/medical conditions that hide that graciousness that has previously been so beautifully expressed. Let us not neglect our elderly. Let us lovingly respect, care and give them our time and honour them. When they are sheep of Christ’s flock let us treat them as trophies of God’s amazing grace who shine as stars in God’s universe, even if now that brilliance is somewhat hidden by cloud.