CLARKE: A Wake-up Call for the growing senior population

October 26, 2021

As we look back on the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the greatest concerns of our Church leadership was the possibility of losing a significant number of parishioners, including their spiritual and financial support.

The pandemic and the creation of protocols and attendance guidelines resulted in large numbers of Catholics not attending Mass or receiving the Sacraments. When all protocols are lifted, the lingering question is, “Will they come back?”

I was particularly interested in what impact the protocols would have on senior adults since this age segment was identified as the most vulnerable group.

When my parish re-opened with new seating guidelines, it didn’t take long to see that the majority of returning churchgoers were senior adults, at least in the services I attended. Just looking around the church, it was obvious that the gray hairs were the majority. Then I asked myself why?

Without conducting exhaustive research, I would venture three key reasons why more senior adults attend Mass in person than other age segments.

Are there more senior adults?
First, there are now more senior adults in all parishes simply because adults are living longer than prior generations. According to U.S. Census data, the average life expectancy for men and women combined in 1950 was about 65.6 years. Today it is 78.9 years. As a result, there are more senior adults on average in all parishes.

Second, the U.S. is in the midst of absorbing the Baby Boomer generation into the U.S. population, some 78 million births between 1946 and 1964. The oldest of the Boomers turned 65 in 2011. This is the largest number of births in any generation in the history of the U.S. About 10,000 Boomers turn age 65 every day and will continue the trend through 2030.

Third, according to ABC News, 60% of people age 65 and older report attending religious services at least once a week compared to 28% of 18- to 30-year-olds. Research has found that religious beliefs and practices increase with age.

Senior adult characteristics
According to sociologist Dean Hoge of the Catholic University of America, “Today’s maturing adults are different from those who came before. They are more motivated by a desire for personal purpose; also, they tend to be more participatory, more interested in active involvement with issues that matter.

Continuing… “Yet maturing adults are perhaps the least understood of any group within churches today. They are also the group that receives the least amount of focus on faith formation.”

Over the past 30 years, the birth rate in the U.S. has been steadily declining (Statista Research Jan. 2021), while the senior population is rapidly expanding. Yet many parishes continue to place more emphasis and resources on programs for children, youth and young adults while the faith formation needs of the fastest-growing segment in the parish, senior adults, receive less attention.

A timely wake-up
The changing demographics should send an urgent wake-up call to the Church and all parishes. The senior adult population is not a temporary blip on the screen. The trend will continue expanding faster than all other age segments, with the 85 and older group being the fastest-growing segment. (Sex and Age Statistics Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau).

Many of the senior adult ministries in parishes have provided much-needed opportunities to gather in a wholesome and supportive environment to socialize and build relationships, an important need for all senior adults. Yet, as Paul Harvey, the noted journalist and commentator, used to say …” and the rest of the story”… is that senior adults have unique spiritual and practical needs that come with navigating the challenges and opportunities in the second half of life.

I do not suggest that a parish should reduce the religious and sacramental preparation programs for the youth; rather, there is a need to include an enhanced and relevant senior adult faith formation ministry in the overall parish faith formation plan. There is much to be gained by encouraging intergenerational involvement and sharing with existing formation ministries.

What should parishes do?
The first step is to recognize the senior adult population growth as an important and rapidly expanding opportunity to provide pastoral care to the fastest-growing segment in most parishes.

Second, the grand vision would be to eventually have an experienced and dedicated senior adult minister and team in all parishes. In the interim, there are numerous options a parish can consider in reaching out to seniors, including Bible study groups, adult education, fellowship gatherings, exercise programs and specialized programs for caregivers, the widowed, grandparents, tours, etc.

In closing, Richard P. Johnson, Ph.D., author of “Parish Ministry for Maturing Adults,” states, “Churches see the need for faith formation efforts at every phase and stage of life and are willing to make room for these efforts in budgets. Additionally, we are beginning to see curricular materials and resources targeted at the needs of maturing adults. All of this points to the need for a new vision of faith formation for maturing adults.”

Bill Clarke is an associate director in the Office of Formation and Discipleship in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Permission has been granted to reprint this article.