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Caring for senior adults requires willingness, guidelines, expert says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If you’re going to provide care for senior adults, you better do it with a willing heart, a pastoral care expert told senior adult ministry leaders during a seminar in Nashville, Tenn.
“Care is the fundamental capacity to cherish a person to the degree one acts willingly in the person’s behalf,” said Bob Sheffield, a church consultant for LifeWay Christian Resource’s pastor-staff leadership department.
“Willingness can be a challenge — especially if you are on church staff. But people you care for will pick up on it if it’s not something you want to do,” he said.
Sheffield led a seminar on “Quality Care Giving for Seniors” during a National Senior Adult Leadership Summit, March 29-31, sponsored by LifeWay’s discipleship and family group.
“One of the greatest challenges facing the church involves ministering to the ever-increasing number of older adults,” Sheffield wrote in “Forward Together: a New Vision for Senior Adult Ministry.” Several authors contributed to the LifeWay Press manual, which serves as guide for senior adult ministry.
Senior adults who need care include those in financial difficulty; those who are homebound or who feel “imprisoned” by poor health, drug dependency, lack of mobility; those who are in mourning over the loss of loved ones; and those who are brokenhearted or in despair.
Sheffield listed three senior age groups, including younger seniors (those who need challenges), middle seniors (those who contribute to others’ well being), and older seniors (those who deserve respect and attention).
He said churches should involve a “caring team” to meet the specific needs of senior adults. The caring team should include the pastor, staff members, deacons, Sunday school leaders and lay volunteers, Sheffield said.
People who offer to care for senior adults should follow several principles, Sheffield said.
They should:
— Come to grips with their own aging. “You cannot help seniors if you are not in touch with your own aging issues. Someday you might need the same care.”
— Care with and not for seniors. “Seniors need to feel they are independent. Involve them in things and let them contribute. Instead of making decisions for them, give them the facts and let them make their own decisions.”
— Show genuine respect for who they are and where they are. “Ask their opinion and listen closely when they share their ideas and views.”
— Mobilize your resources. “Make a list of people in your church who could serve as resources for the senior adults, whether they are lawyers, plumbers or electricians.”
— Don’t assume memory lapses indicate senility. “Memory loss may occur as people grow older, but don’t assume senility has set in.”
— Minister to the extended family. “The family may need a loving word or good deed, too.”
Sheffield said senior adults under the watchful care of others could benefit from “active loving,” which includes active listening, nonverbal touching and positive reinforcement.
In active listening, Sheffield said he advises caretakers to “stop talking, verbally and mentally. Try to hear what the senior adult feels and not what you feel about the situation. Calm your mind; focus on the person talking.”
Sheffield provided a list of what not to do when trying to actively listen:
— Don’t anticipate what’s going to be said, and don’t finish their sentences.
— Don’t correct them or say they are wrong.
— Don’t judge them.
— Don’t feel you have to solve their problems.
— Don’t give advice. “Guidance is OK, but don’t make their decisions for them.”
— Don’t deny the reality of their feelings. “They may feel lonely and abandoned, even if you don’t think they are.”
— Don’t try to cheer them up prematurely. “That can cut off them telling you the way the feel.”
— Don’t say, ‘I know how you feel’ “because you probably really don’t.”
— Don’t divulge confidences.
Acting loving also includes nonverbal touching and positive reinforcement or encouragement.
“Touch conveys care more than we can imagine. Try an appropriate hug, pat on the shoulders, gentle squeeze of the arm or take the person’s hand in yours.”
Offering compliments and encouragement to a senior adult can go a long way in helping them feel better about themselves, Sheffield said, noting, “Take every opportunity to affirm them for major and minor accomplishments.”
Forward Together includes chapters on balanced senior adult ministry, Bible study, discipleship, music, missions, recreation, financial planning and strategic planning. The LifeWay Press book can be purchased in LifeWay Christian Stores or on-line at www.lifewaystores.com.

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  • Terri Lackey