A Message From Mom

My mother, who is just shy of her 98th birthday, has dementia.  My sister, her primary caregiver, says Mom has her good days and her bad days; but most of the time, she is confused and wonders what has happened to her.

This past week, I traveled to California and stayed in a hotel near Knott’s Berry Farm. When I was a kid, that’s the place my family loved to go.  Each year, my father would take us there. He would buy dresses for my two older sisters and my mom, while I fidgeted outside looking at an animated volcano, wondering if I would get to ride a roller coaster. We would go have their famous chicken dinner with all the fixings–mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, corn, and rhubarb.  Dinner was always topped off by their famous boysenberry pie. Walter Knott, the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, crossed raspberries with blueberries back in 1934 and came up with the boysenberry, which makes it as Californian as you can get.

After my father died back in 1986, I would take my mom to Knott’s Berry Farm for the chicken dinner.  It was our thing.  So because I was next door in a hotel on this recent trip, I thought I would surprise her with a takeout dinner from our favorite place. I got an order of chicken with all the fixings and headed up to Arcadia.

When I got to her place, I took the food out of the bags, put it on her table, and invited her to sit down and eat.  I tried to explain to her that this was from Knott’s Berry Farm, but my words didn’t seem to compute.  Instead, she was perturbed with me.  “Craig, this isn’t right.  You don’t set the table like that.” So I got all the bags off the table, with just our plates in front of us, and she seemed a little better.

Then she said, “What about them?  Aren’t you going to serve them?”

I explained to her, “Mom, its only you and me in the room.”

She looked over my shoulder and said, “Aren’t you going to say something to our guests?”

Now I know what my sister meant by a bad day.  Mom was deep into her dementia. Suddenly she stood up and walked with a sense of dignity to the edge of the couch and faced the large windows that looked out into the garden.  She took on the air of her former self when she was the president of the United Methodist Women’s group at her church. She stood up straight and tall and proclaimed in strong voice, “It is so nice to have you all here today. Isn’t it a lovely day.  Look at the flowers and the trees.  I have been thinking about all of you, and there is just one thing I have to say.”

As I am sitting at the table, I am wondering what I should do.  Tell her to sit down, that there is no one out there?  Should I just wait her out?  Then it dawned on me: maybe I should just listen.

“I know a lot of you have had troubles and have felt alone and sad.  But if you just love each other everything will be okay.”

Then she stopped and came back toward the table to sit down, when she remembered she had something else to say.  She went back to the same spot, her podium, and said, “Please, please love each other.  If you do so, you will be so happy.”

She returned to the table, and as we ate our meal, I tried to process what had just happened.  I thought to myself, if I were to be in the same state of mind that she is in some day, would I be speaking of love?  Then I wondered who she was talking to.  The last time I saw her, she said she loved me, but was ready to go home.  She missed my father. She missed her parents and her brothers. She missed her dear friends she had made over the years at church.  Is that who she was seeing?

Then I remembered the passage from Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Mom was seeing something that I wasn’t able to see: the great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us and paved the way. They are always there. Perhaps I was the one who wasn’t truly seeing what was going on.

Since leaving her and heading back to Nashville, that scene of her addressing the crowd has stayed with me.  And her words are something we all should take to heart, “Please, please love each other. If you do so, you will be so happy.”

In 2015, there were 5.1 million people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. As the number of people over the age of 65 doubles in the coming years, those suffering from these diseases will grow to 13.8 million by 2050. By 2022, the direct-care workforce will number 4.6 million workers. These workers will outnumber all the K-12 teachers in the country.
Boomer Spirituality, pp. 154 – 155.

Now Is The Time to Connect With Boomers

You have probably heard the phrase, “If the church is going to survive, it must get younger.”  While this may be true in the long run, in the short term, one of the best strategies for congregational growth and vitality is to intentionally connect with boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964.

Boomers have always had an outsized impact on the American culture.  Because of their high numbers, at each stage of life they have dominated the cultural scene.  Clinton, Bush, and Obama have given us twenty-four years of a boomer in the presidency. And now Trump will give us four more. Perhaps the most surprising factoid about the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court is that at age 49, he is not a boomer.  He’s a GenXer.

When it comes to the church, boomers have been Jesus Freaks, new agers, and megachurchgoers, just to name a few of the spiritual movements they have embraced over the years.  To think this is going to stop once boomers enter their second half of life is to fail to understand the human condition.

As people age, they are more likely to pursue their spirituality.  The closer to death they come, the more they want answers to the biggest question of all, “Is their life after death?”

As boomers retire, they offer the church the greatest untapped knowledge, experience, and wisdom the world has ever seen.  Every day until 2030, ten thousand boomers will move out of the workforce and will find themselves in uncharted waters.  Boomers, who have always wanted to make a difference in the world, will now have the time and energy to do the things they have always wanted to do. Most interestingly, now that they are free from the demands of work, they are going back to the practices of their youth; and one of the most dominating themes of the boomer youth culture was the search for God.

Churches that desire to tap into the explosive growth of the over sixty crowd will need to re-imagine ministry to those we have traditionally called older adults. Boomers don’t want to be called seniors, older adults, or elders.  Those were the names for their parents’ generation.  They don’t want to be entertained by going on church outings or playing cards in the church gym.  They have a passion to contribute to the life of their churches and communities.  They want to live out God’s call in their lives.

Churches need to pay attention to  four key elements for aging baby boomers. First, teach spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, tithing, and worship. These are the faith practices that will sustain boomers as they age.

Second, focus on developing healthy lifestyles and highlighting the importance of having close relationships with family and friends.

Third, support caregivers.  One of the most pressing needs for boomers is helping them take care of their parents who are part of the old, old, those who are over 85-years-old. When boomers are older than 85-years-old, they, too, will need caregivers.

Fourth, help boomers discover and embrace their legacy. Boomers, who were on the front lines of change when they were young, still hope to make the world a better place, especially for their children and grandchildren.

While you may think that all boomers go to church, in actuality, only 38 percent worship weekly. That means there are almost 48 million boomers who are not highly active in their churches, and large portion of that number have no church affiliation at all.

As boomers age, the church has great opportunities to connect with this generation.  A message of hope, love, and grace is needed for a generation that desires to make a difference in their personal lives and in the world around them.

Join Craig Kennet Miller in the webinar, “Boomers and the Search for God” on Tuesday, February 7 at 7:00 pm, Central.  Click the link for information about his new book, Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life.

Saturday Night Lives’ Mockery of Old Age is Heartless

In an ill-attempt at humor, this week’s SNL portrayal of a 106-year-old man and his care-giving nurse showed a complete ignorance of the dire circumstances millions of families face as they deal with the challenge of offering compassionate care to the growing number of the old, old – those over 85 years of age.

In the skit “Theater Donor,” Felicity Jones (star of Rouge One) plays the hapless nurse who serves as the caregiver of a wheelchair-bound wealthy centenarian who has funded a new production at the local theater.  As the play begins, he disrupts the actors as he complains that he can’t hear.  As the show continues, a series of interruptions ensues. A computerized voice from the wheelchair signals that its time for him to be fed.  So his nurse pulls out a large jar of a white substance that she smears on his face as he tries to keep her from getting it into his mouth.  A few moments later a computerized voice calls out that it’s time to “disinfect” as lights and smoke explode from the back of the chair. When the voice calls out that it’s time to change his medical stockings, the man puts up a fight as he maneuvers his electric wheelchair  off the stage.  After that, I turned off the show, wondering why the writers thought this was okay.

SNL, which likes to portray itself as the moral conscience of American culture, got it all wrong this time.  Perhaps they wanted to vent the frustrations of acting in front of a live audience and pulled up memories of some of the worst interruptions they had endured.  Whatever the reason, like most people who do not have the responsibilities of caring for people who can’t take care of themselves, they just don’t understand the issues of pain, discouragement, and frustration caregiving family members experience on a daily basis.

Millions of today’s boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) are finding themselves cast into the role of caregivers as their parents live into their eighties, nineties, and hundreds.  Because of the increasingly high cost of retirement homes and rest homes, most people over the age of eighty-five  do not have the financial resources to live in this kind of housing.  Instead, their children are scrambling to figure out how to keep their jobs while taking care of mom or dad.

Even more concerning for boomers is the dawning realization and fear that if they make it past eighty-five  years of age, there will twice as many people in this age range, and there will be greatly diminished resources to provide for their needs. Today there are over 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States. Most of them are women who are proving care for parents and in-laws.

As people move into their eighties, their level of care changes.  First, they need help as they stay in their own homes or apartments.  The caregiver’s main function is to monitor them by keeping track of their food, making sure they get to doctor’s appointments, and providing transportation when the keys to the car are taken away.

The next stage is when parents move in to live with their children. At first, this is an easier compromise because the caregiver no longer has to travel to the parent’s residence. But as the years go, the adult children’s lifestyle undergoes dramatic change, especially when their parent needs more supervision and care.

It’s at this stage that paid direct caregivers are hired to give ongoing support so the  son or daughter can return to work or have a break from the daily grind. Now we can begin to see the emerging crises in caregiving in its full force. By 2022, the number of direct-care workers will need to increase by 37 percent to more than  4.8 million workers, which is equal to the number of salespeople in retail and more than the 4.5 million who work as K-12 teachers. Because this type of care is one-to-one, the demands on the worker is high, while the pay is low. In short, as more people need one-to-one care, there are fewer qualified workers to fill the jobs.

When boomers begin reaching their eighties in 2026, the number of direct-care workers will need to dramatically increase to keep up with the demands of this growing population.  This just touches the iceberg of issues the American culture will face as its population undergoes dramatic population growth in the next twenty years.

So rather than making fun of those who need help and those who care for them, SNL and its fans need to find compassion for those caught in this emerging crisis faced by millions of American families. For someday, most of them will find themselves needing help or caring for someone they love.

Craig Kennet Miller is the author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. Join him for a series of webinars on boomers that start on Tuesday, January 24.