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Infused with life

Teri McDowell Ott previews Outlook's January 2023 issue "The Third Act," which highlights some extraordinary contributions older adults are making to the church and world.

When my parents were looking for a continual care retirement community, one of the most helpful books I read was Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.

In the book, Gawande tells the story of Bill Thomas, an emergency room doctor turned medical director of a nursing home in upstate New York. Within this nursing home, Thomas saw despair in every room. Residents devoid of spirit and energy. He realized the missing ingredient in the nursing home was life itself.

Thomas designed an experimental program to attack the “Three Plagues” of the residents’ existence – boredom, loneliness and helplessness – by infusing the nursing home with life. In common areas, fake plants were replaced with live ones. Landscapers tore up the lawn and planted vegetable and flower gardens. A greyhound named Target and a lapdog named Ginger moved in, along with four cats and a parakeet for every resident’s room. A playground was installed, and the staff were encouraged to bring their children for visits. Later, an after-school program was added.

At first, Thomas described the result as “total pandemonium.” But in the midst of this chaos, life returned to the home. Gawande writes, “People who [Thomas] believed weren’t able to speak started speaking. People who had been completely withdrawn and nonambulatory started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’ The lights turned back on in people’s eyes.”

From this experiment, Thomas developed a new model home for the elderly. His “Green Houses,” were built to feel like homes, not institutions. Each was small (no more than twelve residents) and communal. Residents have their own rooms built around a large, comfy living room with a long table for family-style dinners. Everyone has the autonomy to set their own sleeping, eating, and social schedules — just like they would at home.

My parents and I toured a retirement community built under the Green House model. The model of care was unlike any nursing home I had ever visited in my pastoral ministry, and the benefits were evident in the residents’ smiling faces.

As I contemplated the content of this Outlook issue focused on older adults, I kept returning to the “Three Plagues.” Boredom, loneliness and helplessness can affect anyone isolated from community, but particularly older adults struggling with loss of independence. Like a “Green House,” the church often serves as a life-infused home for older adults — a place where elders are actively engaged and very much needed. In fact, most churches’ ministries would abruptly stop without the time and talents older adults offer.

This issue highlights some extraordinary contributions of older adults. Trish Tully describes Baby Boomers making faithful use of their “Third Act” through disciplined and diligent work confronting the climate crisis facing their grandchildren. In Leslie Scanlon’s profile of Dr. Paul Smith, we celebrate an 87-year-old Presbyterian who knew Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr., and who continues his own work of interfaith, boundary-crossing, public theology.

Boredom, loneliness and helplessness threaten older adults who become isolated from their faith communities; when they can no longer get themselves to church and must rely on others for transportation and visits. Churches do well to view the care for their elderly as the whole community’s responsibility, not just the pastor’s. Residents of nursing homes get better care from staff when visitors frequently stop in for companionship and conversation. Also, as Kathy Bradley highlights in her article “Advocating for older adults in long-term care,” many seniors need supporters to advocate for their rights and help them maintain their agency.

Faith communities remain one of the few institutions where people of different generations gather to know and care for each other. Strong churches are infused with life — from the very young to the very old. This kind of care in community gives purpose to both those who can support and those who need support as we help each other fight the “Three Plagues.” I pray this issue of the Outlook reminds you of some of the many reasons Christ gathers us together.

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