Psalm 103:14 says, ‘For He knows our frame; He is mindful that we are dust’.
There’s nothing quite like dementia to remind us of our ‘dustiness’.
Today is World Alzheimer’s Day. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a degenerative disease of the brain which mostly affects people over the age of 65. God is mindful that we are dust. He knows the frailty and frustration of ageing. In that frailty and frustration, the gospel is very, very good news.
Perhaps, World Alzheimer’s Day is personal for you. This disease has impacted you or someone you love. Or, maybe there is someone in your church family or local community who suffers from a form of dementia. World Alzheimer’s Day reminds us of the trials particular to ageing. As Christians, this issue raises all sorts of questions—especially about how best to care, serve and minister to elderly people. We thought it would be helpful to interview someone who has experience in this area of ministry. In order that, as the body of Christ, perhaps we can do a better job of washing the (wrinkled) feet of our neighbour.
Robert Benn has been in pastoral ministry for more than fifty years and has served across Asia, Africa and Australia. He is currently (among other things!) the Ambassador Jericho Road, the mercy ministry arm of the NSW Presbyterian Church.
Q. Robert, what do you think are the biggest mistakes the Church makes, in regards to older generations?
A. The Church sometimes fails to note the contribution made by older generations. It is because of what previous generations have given that younger generations have what they have today. And yet, it’s easy to overlook the resources of wisdom available in older generations. If we do that, we miss out on a great wealth of experience! I think another issue is overly homogeneous ministries, where older members are overlooked. Instead we need to work toward a holistic family ministry. Part of that includes considering the aspects of life and worship that are dear to older people, and not just eclipsing these things with new practices. I think the challenge is to reform with patience and affirmation—and that’s not particularly easy to navigate!
I think the challenge is to reform with patience and affirmation
Q. What are some of the challenges in regards to ministering to/discipling older Christians?
A. Some older Christians were brought up in churches where a social-services ‘gospel’ was more prominent than the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus. The challenge in this regard, is to gently turn to a Jesus-type-ministry rather than a doing-excellent-things-ministry.
Also, with so many activities happening in a church, we need to proactively make time for fellowshipping with and discipling the older Christians. If you can locate younger Christians in your congregation who have special passions for ministering to older Christians, do so! Commission them to serve your church family in this way. It’s also worth seeking out opportunities for the older Christians to minister to and disciple the younger ones. In one congregation that I served, there were about six people coming to the evening service—three young and three retired. This congregation grew significantly and one way in which this happened, was the partnership between generations. One way the older Christians were encouraged in ministry was to commission the young people, two by two, to visit the older Christians on Sunday afternoons, and prepare them to ask good questions of the older Christians, like:
- Were you brought up in Australia? In the city or the country? What was life like then?
- Were your parents Christians?
- How did you become a Christian?
- What were the most difficult challenges you faced when you were our age?
Special bonds were built over the years, for in most instances the visits continued!
Gently turn to a Jesus-type-ministry rather than a doing-excellent-things-ministry
Q. What about presenting the Gospel to elderly non-Christians? What are the specific things we need to keep in mind when we think about evangelism to the elderly?
A. It’s worth remembering that as people age, their attention span increasingly is limited. So, I’d encourage you to tell gospel stories, and let doctrine flow from the stories. Get to know the songs and hymns that are indelibly written on the hearts and minds of that particular generation. Sing them to and with them.
Tell gospel stories, and let doctrine flow from the stories
Q. In terms of Alzheimer’s and dementia: how do these conditions impact the way in which we ought to minster to people?
A. Once, I visited an elderly man who had been the minister during his working life. At the time, he was in Pittwood Nursing Home, and probably over 90. I asked one of the carers if I could visit Dr McLeod. “Yes,” she said, “but you won’t get any sense out of him. The most intelligent conversation you can have with him is about his imaginary dog”. Not a good start!
“Dr McLeod,” I commenced. He took little note of that.
“Dr McLeod, this is Robert Benn.”
“Dr McLeod, do you remember BK, how he used to drive you around? And JM, your Session Clerk? And J and J … great ladies in the church? How about your home in Bateau Bay?”
There was a stirring of memory and mind. Within a few minutes, his mind came to life and he took over the conversation, asking about this and that … and soon he was addressing me as ‘Robert’. In no time, he was telling me what to do, and where to go, and how to do it … quite typical of the way he was to me when I first arrived at Hurstville 20 years before! The nursing sister was amazed, and realised that there was actually more in his mind than an imaginary dog!
I think, the key is, get to know them. Get to know their stories, perhaps through their family and friends. Make good time and have a good listening ear. After engagement with them, you should know more about them than they know about you! If you can ask about events in their lives, sometimes the mind clicks into gear a little.
I think, the key is, get to know them. Get to know their stories, perhaps through their family and friends. Make good time and have a good listening ear.
Q. Sometimes, particular cognitive or behavioural issues in elderly people might challenge our ordinary ways of thinking about salvation and sanctification. How do you navigate these issues?
A. When an elderly person affirms, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, our understanding and gracious Lord God inaudibly responds, “My child!” Go for the basic fundamentals of ‘the great swap of the cross’, and get them nodding. Paint a picture of the wonder of the resurrection and see their eyes light up. Tell the stories of the blind man who could now see and note the smile.
Q. What about ministering to the families of those affected by these neurological diseases/degeneration? How can we best serve and encourage them?
A. These families are likely to be the main supporters. So, offer help. Take over the caring role from time to time, give them a break. Pay for them to go away for a few days. Integrate them into the life of the church, and make sure they know we are praying for them. All of the above is a clarion call for excellent pastoral care and ministry structure in the local church.
When an elderly person affirms, “The Lord is my Shepherd”, our understanding and gracious Lord God inaudibly responds, “My child!”
Robert’s answers showcase not only his wisdom and experience—but his love for elderly saints. That is what must be at the heart of our service. We ought to ask questions, listen carefully, tell stories and care well; because of love. Jesus says, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35). In the face of frailty and frustration, we would do well to model our service after the compassionate God who ‘knows our frame’ and is ‘mindful that we are dust’.