By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff – July 20, 2017

ORLANDO | “Thanks to the progress of medicine life-spans have increased: but society has not “expanded” to life!,” said Pope Francis. “The number of elderly has multiplied, but our societies are not organized well enough to make room for them, with proper respect and practical consideration for their frailty and their dignity… And the elderly are a wealth not to be ignored.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency on Aging, by 2030 the country will have 72.1 million people older than 65 — more than double the elderly population in 2000. And Florida’s senior population is numbered among the top three in the U.S. So how is the Catholic Church responding in a society that increasingly views the elderly as disposable, insignificant and irrelevant?

The Vatican has urged Catholics to make a new commitment, not only to care for older persons, but to learn from them. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops pastoral message, Blessings of Age, the bishops invited people of all ages and faith communities to develop initiatives to encourage the inclusion and participation of seniors in society and the Church.

“The spiritual growth of the aging person is affected by the community and affects the community… People become holy within a community,” the message states.

Barbara Cage, program manager for Catholic Charities of Central Florida’s Lakeland Activity Center for Seniors said, “Social contact is a basic need for all humans. I think that every person wants to feel included, regardless of age, ability, economic situation, and ethnicity. Social isolation is proven to affect one’s health and well-being. It is more detrimental to one’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese. It is among the top causes for depression.”

To address these issues, the center expanded its Mobile Services for Seniors in Polk and Osceola counties. Since January, three additional locations have been added. Carol First is a client that regularly attends the mobile services in Frostproof. But last month she also made the trek to the mobile location in Bartow. Ashley Stukes, program coordinator, said, “I asked her what made her decide to join us in Bartow and she told me, ‘Well, I did not see any human beings since Friday in Frostproof with you, so I thought I would come here to Bartow since I had so much fun last week.’”

First’s experience is not singular. As Stukes pointed out, First lives alone and does not have much family or any children. “Her only source of interaction is when she goes to the store and when she comes into mobile services. We can analyze the numbers all day,” said Stukes, “but to see the effect that this program has on our clients is truly rewarding.”

“Beyond the isolation,” said Cage, “I think that Lakeland Activity Center for Seniors plays a big part in helping our seniors remain independent and able to age in place, which in turn keeps their dignity intact. Also, we offer safe opportunities to allow those that are able to do so, the chance to volunteer and give back to their community.” This is a critical part of the Catholic faith and gives seniors a sense of purpose and helps them realize that they still have many gifts to offer.

Parishes are another source of community where the elderly can find a group of peers to grow in faith and friendship through programs such as bible studies and service projects. This is visible at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Summerfield where the average age of its parishioners is 68.

Bob Harrison is a parishioner at St. Mark who lost his wife four years ago. His children live in Connecticut and he found that loneliness was one of the greatest difficulties he encountered. He joined a six week grieving program that is offered three times per year at the parish. Afterward, realizing that men and women grieve differently, he began a men’s widower group. “This is not a singles club,” he pointed out. “My approach is designed to offer fellowship and support and develop friendships while sharing things that are unique to us.”

Amy Puccio facilitates the Forever Young Senior Ministry at Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo. The group meets monthly to journey with each other through companionship, practical support, service to others and spiritual growth. These older adults are engaged in life and are eager to continue learning, growing and contributing to the community. They support the youth group through their efforts, invite speakers on topics concerning the aging and spirituality, and share the joys and difficulties of aging. Classy Crafters and Sunshine Chat are two additional groups that have branched off to meet additional needs such as shared hobbies and the need to discuss difficulties such as having to move in with family members, raising grandchildren and illness.

Puccio said, “We provide the support that you need from each other faith-wise and friend-wise. Our presence is important. We are here to keep our faith and show our faith.” Puccio said the social activities are integral in keeping seniors active because many seniors “won’t go by themselves” to explore new places.

Holy Family Parish in Orlando also offers numerous senior ministries from Stitch in Time sewing ministry to Mary’s Rosaries which makes rosaries for the sick in hospitals, nursing homes and those who are homebound. St. Anthony Parish in Lakeland also has “a robust ministry to, and by, elderly and sometimes homebound parishioners,” said Annie Munroe, administrative assistant at the parish. She added. “Our Ministry to the Sick team comprises octogenarians who are still very active in ministering to the sick…many times those serving in ministry will tell me how they feel like they receive graces through that ministry, as much as they are ministering to others.”

Mary Alice Hammond coordinates Prime Timers at St. James Cathedral in Orlando. She laughed remembering when she was just friends with many of the elderly and suddenly found herself joining the group. She explained that Prime Timers “enables seniors to continue responding to their call to serve” and notes that many members say that “without Prime Timers, there would be nothing for them.”

Living independently is another issue facing the elderly and the cost of affordable housing makes it even harder. Catholic Charities offers two senior residences – St. Anthony Garden Courts in St. Cloud and St. Joseph Garden Courts in Orlando. These housing communities provide communal activities, as well as health programs.

In reflecting on her work at Catholic Charities, Cage summed up the plight of seniors saying, “It is difficult for me to witness the struggle that I see so many of our seniors facing as they age. These are the baby boomers that gave so much toward the technology and comforts we find in our world today.  Many of them are veterans. Most have supported many religious, social, health and other causes throughout their lifetime.  Some need financial support, some suffer health issues, some are lonely and missing friends they have lost or family that lives away; but the common thread is that they all need to know that someone cares about their existence.”

For information on the Lakeland Activity Center for Seniors and its mobile sites, visit: http://cflcc.org/lacs or call 863-687-2988.

For information on senior housing in the Diocese of Orlando, contact Catholic Charities of Central Florida: 407-658-1818. Please note that all diocesan senior living facilities currently have one-year waiting lists.

To find out about senior programs in your area, contact your local parish office.