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One of the biggest challenges the Church will face in the coming years will be the aging of the Baby Boomer generation and the impact on parish, priestly and religious life. The population of those 65 and older in the United States is expected to more than double – from 43.1 million to about 90 million – between 2012 and 2060. The population of the very old – 85 and older – will triple.
This shift will lead to a wave of retirements among priests and religious within a short time and impact the use of human and financial resources. Many ministries may need to be reevaluated as those served by them age. Decisions about programs and resources must include awareness of physical limitations in mobility, vision and hearing that accompany aging.
Kathleen Toellner, Psy.D., a therapist at Saint Luke Institute interested in aging and its impact on ministry settings, suggests the Church is uniquely positioned to support this growing population.
There is a wealth of clinical knowl-edge about aging gained from the extensive Catholic health care ministries worldwide. The emphasis on the dignity of the elderly person is another key factor. As Pope Francis said in an address to the elderly, “We Christians … are called to patiently build a more diverse, more welcoming, more humane, more inclusive society that does not need to discard the weak in body and mind.” The Church can play a leadership role in how our society manages this dramatic demographic shift.
The ritualistic nature of Mass and prayer also can be a great comfort and bolster well-being.
Religious communities offer a special kind of support for the aging. A religious woman in community, for example, is not only steeped individually in the repetition of prayer but she is also surrounded by others who are doing the same, Toellner said, offering the comfort of a “collective understanding.”
Parishes that work to keep the elderly engaged in ministry may experience similar positive outcomes. Toellner also says that “being part of a group is very protective” for a person struggling with dementia or memory loss.
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