Not long ago I sat in a restaurant and watched a young-adult grandson cradle the elbow of his grandmother while she pushed her walker across the uneven brick floor. It seemed obvious that they were having a special grandmother-grandson date. As they neared their table, he moved ahead to pull out the chair then helped her to be seated.
During the next hour I could hear bits and pieces of their conversation. She asked about his new apartment and his first post-college job. He asked about the latest news at her assisted living center. I could see the grandmother’s face brighten each time her grandson leaned close to tell her another story.
The expression on the older woman’s face made me think back to a time when my son, a professional chef, and his wife made a trip from their Texas Hill Country home to visit my frail mother who lived in a Dallas-area retirement community. As a gift for my mother, Matthew and Rachel had prepared a very large pot of butternut squash soup. They spooned the soup into take-home containers and gave it to each resident in the dining room. I watched my mother’s face beam with pride. Not only had she enjoyed visiting with her grandchildren, she basked in the glow of comments of other appreciative residents who passed by her table.
As the holiday season nears, we should each think about the older adults in our lives, especially those faced with physical, emotional or mental decline. The best gift we can give them is the gift of time. Regrettably in our hurry-scurry world, time is also the gift we are least likely to give.
In these days of digital ease, we are tempted to point-and-click at an item on the computer screen and have it shipped directly to an older loved one who is homebound or at a senior residence center. In less than five minutes, a fancy cheese tray or fruit basket is on its way to their doorstep. No fuss. No muss. No bother. The problem is that even the fanciest fruit basket is no substitute for what most frail older adults want and need most: face-to-face time with those who say they love them.
Similarly, as churches, we miss the point of ministry with the frail elderly if we deliver poinsettias and sing a few carols in December, and then disappear again until Easter or later. Even greeting cards and monthly newsletters are no substitute for frequent and personal contact. As physical decline increases, our need for human interaction becomes even more important to our overall well-being.
Why then are so many churches failing to consistently minister to and with the homebound and residents of senior care centers? One reason is fear. Many church members and family members say they do not have the interpersonal skills to engage someone who is in physical decline. In truth, nurturing a relationship with a frail older adult, even a family member, causes us to step into a world of wheelchairs and walkers, trembling hands and lonely faces. In coming face-to-face with decline, we are also confronted with our own mortality. But God calls us to move beyond our comfort zones.
This Christmas, if you are tempted to shop for an older adult by pointing-and-clicking, or if you plan to show up with a poinsettia for a once-a-year visit, I hope you will stop and think again. Like the grandson who treated his grandmother to a memorable luncheon date, let’s get back to the basics. Let’s give the frail elderly what they really want. The gift of time.