December 17, 2017

Ministering to the Elderly

Laura Hutchison

God bless you so much for coming.” The 98-year-old lady, sitting in a wheelchair, is dressed in a worn housedress and fuzzy pink slippers. “God bless you, young lady! Thank you for coming!” She continues to repeat the words as she clutches my hand. Every time I visit her assisted-living home, she seems to grow more appreciative. When I say goodbye, she grasps my hand once again and says, “I wish you could come every day, young lady. Thank you for coming!”

Mrs. Morris belongs to the growing segment of society largely overlooked even by evangelical Christianity: the elderly. Browsing through Christian magazines and books, looking at ministry programs in churches, and listening to messages preached by pastors, we find various ministries emphasized: youth ministries, children’s ministries, singles’ ministries, ladies’ ministries. The elderly, however, are often unnoticed.

Although modern society has neglected the elderly, God hasn’t. He desires that His church reach out to these people and minister grace to them. James urges us not to forget this special group of people when he writes that part of pure religion is “to visit the . . . widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). We see that God values the elderly in Proverbs 16:31: “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.” David’s cry to God in Psalm 71:9 is that of many elderly people today: “Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth.”

Why Are the Elderly Overlooked Today?

Here are four common objections that often prevent us from reaching out.

Elderly people don’t understand what we’re trying to communicate. Many times the disabilities of the elderly cause us to believe that they cannot understand us or that they aren’t aware of what’s going on around them. Although for some elderly people this may be true, the majority are well aware of their surroundings and are capable of communicating with others. Another lady at the assisted care-home I visit is a testimony to this fact. The day after her 100th birthday she told me how much she enjoyed a message she had recently heard and how God used it to encourage her.

Even those who have mental disabilities can be helped and comforted. Another one of the ladies I visit, who has some mental problems, always enjoys talking and being with others. While I can’t discuss theology with her, I can encourage her and make her life a little happier just by taking time to visit with her.

Elderly people aren’t quick to respond. As with any ministry, we want to see the results of our efforts. We want to know that what we’re doing is having an effect. Ministry to the elderly does require patience, but if we’re faithful we will eventually see results. After two years of visiting the assisted care home once a week, I had the joy of seeing one of the residents saved.

Elderly people don’t have much potential. Often we fall into the thinking that since elderly people don’t have much of their lives left, they can’t be productive for Christ. The unintentional extension of this idea is that since elderly people can’t be as productive as younger people, it’s not worth the effort to minister to them. Elderly people, however, can have a big impact. Consider the grandfather of one of my friends. For years his daughter, who was the only one in the family who knew Christ at the time, prayed for his salvation. Although during 16 years of her unceasing prayer he stubbornly refused to accept Christ, gradually he softened and was saved. His testimony then caused several other members of the family to realize the truth of Christ and come to know Him.

We can’t relate to them. Often elderly people seem different from us—since they’ve lived most of their lives during a time unfamiliar to us, they seem detached from modern life. We think that we can’t relate to them. But spending time with elderly people reveals that they aren’t much different from us and that, in fact, we can build meaningful and rewarding relationships with them. One of the elderly people at the assisted living home, Mary Jane, is always exclaiming over the way things have changed over the years. But she’s fascinated by the changes and wants to talk about them—she wants to know about my life and is eager to tell me about hers.

What Are Some Rewards of Ministering to the Elderly?

Reaching out to the elderly is a rewarding ministry. What are some of the benefits we receive from taking time to get involved in the lives of these people?

We are encouraged. I can’t count the times I’ve gone to minister to an elderly person and have come away encouraged by his or her love for God. Elderly people have gained a lot of wisdom from their many years of living. They have so much to teach us if we will only take time to learn from them.

We realize the blessings we have. When I start getting a critical spirit or becoming discontent with what I have, many times I find the solution in visiting with an elderly person. Realizing that so many people have much less than I do makes me more thankful for what I have. Because many of the elderly people I talk to are happy despite their circumstances, I realize that I can have joy no matter what my situation is.

God blesses ministry. The familiar saying “you reap what you sow” is just as true in this ministry as in any other. God rewards us greatly not only in heaven but also here on earth as we share His love with others. Recently, as I was coming back from the assisted-living home, I was overwhelmed with God’s love and care for us. Listening to the testimonies of so many of the elderly people had made me realize in a new way the truth that “His mercies are new every morning.” The time and effort I expended were more than worth the blessing of this reminder.

What Are Some Practical Ways We Can Minister to the Elderly?

How can we minister to these people? What are some practical ways we can reach out?

Hold them up. We know that prayer is vital for any ministry. Timothy urges us that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men” (1 Tim. 2:1). We can’t forget the importance of prayer. Andrew Murray said, “Beware, in your prayer, above everything, of limiting God, not only by unbelief, but also by fancying that you know what He can do.”

Hold their hands. There are two aspects to helping the elderly: personal contact and provision for their needs. James captures the essence of ministry when he instructs us to “visit” them. Many times elderly people enjoy nothing more than contact with other people. In addition, because elderly people experience the physical limitations that result from aging, they are often unable to do the things they need to do. In these areas, we can be a help and encouragement. What are some practical ideas for meeting these needs?

  • Read to them. Because their eyesight is diminishing, many elderly people can no longer read. Elderly Christians particularly like having Bible passages read to them.
  • Take them out. Those who can no longer drive appreciate being taken to the places they need to go, such as church, shopping, or running errands. They also enjoy being taken somewhere special as a treat, like out to eat.
  • Send them cards. Cards make people feel special and loved. Knowing someone is thinking of them encourages everyone.
  • Bring them food. Most elderly people find cooking difficult. Occasionally providing food for them gives them a needed rest.
  • Do work around the house for them or run errands for them. Volunteering to do work around the house or running errands is a great help to the elderly, especially because many of them would otherwise have to hire someone to do the work for them.
  • Provide tapes for them to listen to. Those who can’t get out very much especially enjoy listening to sermon or inspirational tapes.
  • Bring them small gifts. Everyone loves to be surprised by gifts. Flowers, stuffed animals, or other creative ideas are always a good way to brighten an elderly person’s day.

Ministering to the elderly is a vital, rewarding ministry that God emphasizes in His Word. By overcoming incorrect thought patterns, realizing the benefits of ministry, and reaching out in practical ways, we can have a meaningful ministry to the elderly that will enrich not only them but also us as well.

At the time of original publication, Laura Hutchison led a nursing home ministry in Greenville, South Carolina, where she was a student at Bob Jones University.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

Submit other comments here.