Contemporary and Social Issues Religious Concepts

Population Ageing – Challenges Ahead

Faith Groups Play Key Role in Tackling Loneliness, Depression and Other Issues Faced by Elderly

The world’s ageing population is a phenomenon that can no longer be ignored, as the proportion of people 65 and older grows at a much higher rate than the general population. Worldwide, the number of older people, which was 205 million in 1950, is projected to reach 2 billion by 2050, according to a report released by the UN Population Fund last autumn and will have far-reaching implications for all aspects of society.

The report calls on governments at the local and national level, international organisations, communities and civil societies to take action and make a commitment to protect the elderly and ensure that they can age with good health and dignity.

“We need to bring a greater awareness to the issues faced by the elderly so we can identify if they are being taken care of, or if they are being abused and neglected,” said Barry Kozak, Director of the Elder Law Program at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Kozak said that governments around the world know that there are problems and are trying to come up with ways to address issues, including age discrimination, healthcare, income security and abuse, but most are not doing enough to prepare for the impending demographic shift in their populations.

As governments struggle to cope, the role of faith communities in helping with issues faced by the senior population should not be underestimated, according to Raymond Studzinski, Associate Professor at Catholic University’s School of Theology in Washington D.C.

Studzinski said one of the main benefits of faith communities is the positive way they look at ageing and dying, which fosters a spirit of gratitude that can counter dealing with loss or feelings of diminishment faced by many of the older members. Studzinski thinks more can be done.

“Faith groups need to create a place for those that are maybe retired from their other full-time positions and find other ways that those people can serve in the Community. And well prior to people having to deal with suffering and death, faith communities should be educating people about faith resources for dealing with illness and things of that nature,” Studzinski said.

The Reverend Canon Jan Naylor Cope, Vicar at the National Cathedral, Washington D.C., said her congregation is doing exactly that. Cope says they hold book discussion groups, teach courses, arrange pilgrimages, provide pastoral care and hold regular community gatherings that are specially focused on the older members.

“It is incumbent upon all of us to become much more conversant on what the issues are that go with ageing and see what our role is as a faith community to remain with people in that process,” Cope said.

To that end the Church has volunteers that take communion to people that are unable to get to the church because of health or mobility issues and have live web streams of their Sunday services and occasional concerts and lectures that people can watch at home at a time and place that is convenient for them.

Nisar Orchard, national moral training secretary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK said that the importance of faith leaders reaching out to their elderly members cannot be underestimated.

“We make an effort to involve elderly members at every level. Not just religious activities but we try to engage them in recreational events like marathon walks, and get-togethers where they can reminisce. When they get together it takes away the loneliness,” Orchard said.

Orchard said that while there are many ways, including emailing, skyping and mobile phones to keep in touch with elderly members in our communities, there is absolutely no replacement for face to face interaction.

“Actually going to visit an elderly person and knocking at their door and saying ‘is there anything I can do for you?’ or just ‘how are you?’ and sitting down and having a cup of tea with them. Even though all modes of communication are available, the important one that really means something is making the effort to walk to that person’s house to see them,” Orchard said.

Judith Whiton, 74, thinks that being part of a faith community has definite benefits and helps old, unwell and isolated members from falling between the cracks by providing a support system.

“One of the reasons for longevity and maintaining good health is social interaction with other people. Isolation and depression are huge problems, and within faith groups there is a sense of community, of belonging that helps people manage these feelings,” Whiton said.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK’s Charity Walk for men over 40 helps raise thousands of pounds each year for charities. © AMA UK
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK’s Charity Walk for men over 40 helps raise thousands of pounds each year for charities.

Saliha Malik, national president of the women’s auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA agrees and said that from the Islamic perspective Muslims have a great advantage because of the importance placed on family and community.

“In our teachings, we have got the guidance that the elderly community is nurtured in family. It is in the Qur’an that you look after your parents and you are very respectful to them, you don’t put them aside and you let them be a part of the Community,” Malik said.

She further went on to say, “Respectfulness and inclusiveness of the elderly generation is an integral part of what we are taught in Islam. There is so much information on how people thrive better when they are connected to a community, especially a community that is prayful.”

Nadja Cabello, 59, has been taking care of her 87-year-old mother, Nair, since her mother moved to the United States from Brazil in 1994. Cabello says the biggest challenge for her is balancing her work and making sure that her mother has the assistance and supervision that she needs to be safe.

What makes it possible for Cabello is the medical support centre that Medicare pays for, which picks up and drops off her mother during the hours Cabello is working.

“It is a safe place for her to be during the day and without it, I would have to hire someone full-time to be with her, and that would be extremely expensive,” Cabello said.

Cabello worries about what will happen when she gets older and will need the same kind of care.

“I have seen that not every child is committed to really helping their parents. It takes a lot of fortitude to hang in there and have that conviction and it is a lot of work,” Cabello said. “Not everybody can do it.”

In his book, ‘Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues,’ Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, the Fourth Khalifah of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has emphasised the importance of family in the care of their elderly members in Islam. He wrote, “After the unity of God, human beings should, through their attitude of love, affection and kindness, give priority over all other things to their parents who have reached an old and difficult age.”