The Parish: A Helper for the Aging
By Alexandra Kishkovsky
The Orthodox parish can participate in an important Christian ministry by serving not only the spiritual but also the physical and practical needs of the aging. It is impossible to separate one from the other, they are so closely related. By providing practical assistance to the elderly, one in effect becomes directly involved with their spiritual well-being.
In view of this, the parish can begin its outreach ministry by first becoming familiar with local programs and services, as well as by identifying the specific needs of seniors in the parish and in the community at large. The Church can play an invaluable role by bridging the enormous gap existing between those needs and available services. The aged must have concerned advocates and dedicated volunteers available to guide them to the proper resources and help them deal with the faceless bureaucracy of government agencies. Our Orthodox parishes can provide such volunteers. The Church can and develop and promote advocacy on behalf of the aging; it can and should encourage its parishioners to be sensitive to the needs of senior citizens. We must respond actively and responsibly to the Church’s invitation to volunteer one’s time, talents, and resources for work with the elderly. It is a call to Christian action.
To be an effective advocate for the aging, one must first become educated and well-informed about the different aspects of Social Security, SSI (Supplemental Security Income), Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, legal aid, federal housing, and energy assistance programs, homemaker services, lunch programs, transportation, adult homes, health-related facilities and nursing homesto mention only a few areas of concern. To obtain information on these subjects and a guide to community programs contact the following:
Government - federal, state, county and municipal agencies print numerous materials, directories of community services, information pamphlets and important official documents on all of the above-mentioned areas. All of these materials are available through our local library system. Counties usually produce a senior citizen “Directory of Services” listing local programs and opportunitiesan excellent resource for parish priests and volunteers. To obtain such a directory, contact the nearest office on senior citizen affairs (listed in the phone book under county or state) or visit the local senior lunch program. The county office can provide you with a complete list of nutrition sites for senior citizens in your area.
Schools of Social Work - universities and colleges have good resource materials, manuals, textbooks, guidebooks, and in-depth studies for volunteers and agencies.
Inter-faith Ministries - in some communities the churches have organized inter-faith ministries to the aging, providing important information and much-needed services to the elderly. Many individual denominations and churches also have well-developed programs and are excellent sources of information.
Problems Encountered by the Aging:
1) Usually those seniors who most need the information provided in county or city directories published for their benefit never see them because they either cannot read English, or are visually impaired. In addition, most are unable to process all of the overwhelming information printed therein, and as a result cannot use it.
2) Local agencies frequently duplicate services by offering similar assistance under different programs; this causes confusion to elderly people. Problem cases often get shuffled from one agency to another with few positive results.
3) Seniors experiencing problems with their Social Security SSI, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. soon discover that by calling the appropriate number listed in their county directory, they may be greeted by unfriendly, impatient voices, not a helpful person eager to solve their problem. When seeking help in a crisis, the senior will most likely be bounced from one telephone number to another, especially in large urban areas. Perhaps the local senior citizen directories are efficient; that does not guarantee the efficiency of those answering the telephone. You can easily enter into a bureaucratic maze which no directory can help you escapeonly experience and a personal relationship with people working in these agencies will bail you out. This valuable link of personal concern can be provided by parish volunteers becoming involved not only in their parishes, but in local agencies and the community at large.
The Need for Volunteers
Volunteers are the Church’s and community’s most valuable resource. They are a source of action, that vital link between the senior adult, the Church, and government agencies. It is through the lay ministry of Orthodox volunteers that the Church can effectively help and minister to the aging. To be effective, it is important that Orthodox volunteers not limit themselves to meeting the needs of their parishioners only, but assume some Christian responsibility in the community around them. Volunteer work in the community at large provides a rich opportunity for Orthodox Christian witness. It is also an important two-way street, a benefit to both the community and the parish.
The volunteer worker is that essential life-line between available resources and a suffering human soul. To the senior citizen in need of help, the volunteer becomes the interpreter of all information, directories, and paperwork. Volunteerism is the key to successfully meeting the practical needs of the aging, as well as some of their spiritual ones.
As Christians, we must remember that we are to be concerned not only with the physical needs of the aging, but also with their spiritual life. I encounter may aging persons in a critical state of depression, overwhelmed by their problems, crushed by the bureaucracy they encounter, and unable to reach community services they so desperately need. Parishioners and the priest usually listen sympathetically to their complaints, but feel there is nothing they can do concretely to help; or perhaps, at times, they are even under the impression that the older person is exaggerating.
On the other hand, there are many who will not adequately articulate their problems even when in dire need of assistance, thus creating a false impression of well-being. In either case the result is total inaction and passivity of both the parishioners and the suffering senior. This directly affects the older person’s attitude and relationship to the Church. The senior feels alienated and neglected by the parish and suffers spiritually. Someone in a panic over cutbacks in food stamps and other essential services, experiencing rent increases, transportation problems, myriads of reclassification papers and questionnaires, is usually so engrossed in the daily physical struggle to survive that he finds no time or inclination towards God and the Church. Here the Orthodox volunteer can play a vital role, by offering to solve the problem at hand, relieving the older person from physical anxiety and opening the door to spiritual concerns. Then an offer by the volunteer to drive that person to a church service, and the suggestion to receive Holy communion, may be met with some degree of acceptance and joy.
Parishes can have all the bibliographies, pamphlets, and directories of community services and still completely miss the boat, so to speak. A well-stocked library on the topic of aging cannot replace an experienced and committed volunteer. Unless dedicated volunteers are recruited to work actively in the field of the aging, all those printed materials will remain useless. The volunteer is essential. The parish priest cannot be expected to spend countless frustrating hours alone dealing with government bureaucracy. He needs your commitment to this much-needed lay ministry.
Where and How an Orthodox Christian Can Volunteer
1) Volunteer to your priest to be a link between the parish and local resources. Offer to look through and act upon any materials the church receives that deals with senior citizens. Government agencies regularly send very important information and reminders to the churches, alerting them of new programs (e.g. energy assistance, tax rebates, etc.) Usually the notices are laid aside because the priest is not familiar with the material and fails to evaluate its importance to seniors. Many times I have seen these special programs provide people with some human dignity by giving them temporary relief from marginal financial existence.
2) Offer to obtain pamphlets, directories, and materials with information pertinent to aging and listing local resources and community services. Appropriate materials can be selected for distribution within the parish. We should not assume that the average Orthodox priest or parishioner is familiar with such materials, especially if they are not actively involved in senior citizen affairs.
It is not necessary for a parish volunteer to be a professional social worker. Neither is it necessary to wait for the parish to organize a special project. Only one person need show interest and be involved for the outreach ministry to have a successful beginning. However, to be effective, it is essential to work closely with professionals.
First of all, find out who is the local social worker for the aged by inquiring at the town hall or calling the local office on senior citizen affairs listed in your phone book under municipal, county, or state office. Sing up as a volunteer at that social worker’s agency. Various agencies serving local seniors are more than happy to have volunteers on their staff to bridge the gaps that sometimes existed between the agency and its clients. They welcome church participation and support. Often they are most grateful or interpreters and translators. You will be given the opportunity to visit seniors in your community, help them fill out endless forms and required paperwork.
You will be able to provide older, lonely people with genuine concern and loving human contact. Being attached to an agency will always keep you up to date on new programs and services. The government bureaucracy is a source of ever-changing rules and regulations, requiring the volunteer to be always one step ahead. Being involved with an agency links you to a valuable network of professionals, where you develop a close working relationship, so that when a senior citizen needs immediate help, you already know which person to call, rather than what number to dial, for quick and courteous action.
Senior citizen lunch programs always welcome volunteers and provide an excellent opportunity for Orthodox Christian witness to the community.
Host a special program at your church for the local senior group. Or have the church choir give a liturgical concert at the lunch program or some evening. If possible, offer your parish hall for the regular use of the group. Show the local community that the Orthodox Church cares, shares community responsibility, and is active.
Organize transportation to church services. Did you ever wonder why some Orthodox seniors stay home on Pascha? I’ve discovered that in many cases they stay home not to sleep, but so as not to burden anyone with their transportation problems on such a “busy” night.
Orthodox volunteers should be encouraged to be initiators of new programs to fill any gaps within their communities in services to the aging. Does your community have a special inter-faith committee to deal with the needs of seniors? Does it have a senior citizen lunch program, an emergency food center, and food drives for the needy? Does it supply special transportation and an escort service for the elderly to churches, shopping, county offices, and medical appointments? Does anyone help them fill out tax forms, home energy assistance applications, Social Security, SSI, Medicaid, and food stamps questionnaires and applications? If not, this is an opportunity for an Orthodox Christian volunteer to initiate such programs. Why wait for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to be the initiators? We Orthodox should encourage each other to be motivated, to be active and creative, to be pioneers in our communities, and not late-comers.
Perhaps your parish is one of the many Orthodox parishes which have already been responding for many years to the needs of the aging in their communities. It would be very helpful if you shared with us, through this Resource Handbook, your experience and programs. This can serve as a catalyst for others, providing a challenge and awareness through living examples of such ministry.
1. Serving the elderly by helping them with practical needs is one way for Church members to answer God’s call to service.
2. The first step is to become familiar with local services aiding the aging.
3. One needs to be aware that, for various reasons, older people sometimes cannot use the services offered to them or may even be unaware of benefits to which they are entitled.
4. A volunteer’s most helpful services may be to become a link between the aged person and the sometimes impersonal, bureaucratic agencies he or she must deal with.
5. From the standpoint of witness and mission, we should note that a volunteer’s efforts to help an older person may free that person from anxiety, making him or her more receptive to the Christian message.
6. How can we volunteer?
Offer our services to the parish priest.
Give our time to one of the agencies for the aging.
Organize and initiate programs for the aging, in the parish or in the larger community.
Alexandra Kishkovsky lives in Sea Cliff, N.Y. where she is a volunteer for the local Senior Health and Counseling Service. She is Chairwoman of the diocesan Department of Lay Ministries, and secretary of the Section on Seniors, Department of Stewardship and Lay Ministries.