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Minister for Seniors at Famed Church Confronts Ageism and the Shame It Brings

Later life is a time of reassessment and reflection. What sense do we make of the lives we have lived? How do we come to terms with illness and death? What do we want to give to others as we grow older?

Lynn Casteel Harper, 41, has thought deeply about these and other spiritual questions. She’s the author of an acclaimed book on dementia and serves as the minister of older adults at Riverside Church in New York City, an interdenominational faith community known for its commitment to social justice. Most of the church’s 1,600 members are 65 and older.

Every Thursday from September to June, Harper runs programs for older adults that include Bible study, lunch, concerts, lectures, educational sessions and workshops or other forms of community-building. She also works with organizations throughout New York committed to dismantling ageism.

I spoke with Harper recently about the spiritual dimension of aging. Our conversation, below, has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does a minister of older adults do?

A large part of my job is presence and witness — being with people one-on-one in their homes, at the bedside in hospitals or nursing homes, or on the phone, these days on Zoom, and journeying with them through the critical junctures of their life.

Sometimes if people are going through really difficult experiences, especially medically, it’s easy for the story of the illness and the suffering to take over. Part of my role is to affirm the other dimensions. To say you are valuable despite your sickness and through your sickness. And to affirm that the community, the church is with you, and that doesn’t depend on your capacity or your abilities.

Q: Can you give me an example of someone who reached out to you?

I can think of one today — a congregant in her 70s who’s facing a surgery. She had a lot of fear leading up to the surgery and she felt there could be a possibility she wouldn’t make it through.

So, she invited me to her home, and we were able to spend an afternoon talking about experiences in her life, about the things that were important to her and the ways she’d like the church to be there for her in this time. And then we were able to spend some time in prayer.

Q: What kind of spiritual concerns do you find older congregants bringing to you?

One of the things, undeniably, is death and dying. I see a lot of older adults wanting to express their concerns and desires regarding that.

I can think of one woman who wanted to plan out her memorial service. It was really important for her to think about what would be special for the congregation and her family — a gift she wanted to leave behind.

I rarely encounter a fearfulness about what will happen when someone dies. It’s more about: What kind of care will I receive before I go? Who will care for me? I hear that especially from people who are aging solo. And I think the church has an opportunity to say we are a community that will continue to care for you.

Q: What other spiritual concerns regularly arise?

People are looking back on their lives and asking, “How do I make sense of the things that maybe I regret or maybe am proud or am ambivalent about? What do those experiences mean to me now and how do I want to live the rest of my life?”

We invite story sharing. For instance, we did a program where we asked people to share an important object from their home and talk about how you came to have it and why it’s important to you.

For another program, we asked, “What is a place that’s been important to you and why?” That ended up being a discussion about “thin places” — a Celtic concept — where it feels like the veil between this world and the next is very thin and where you feel a connection with the divine.

Q: Your work revolves around building community. Help me understand what that means.

That’s another theme of spirituality and aging. In middle life and earlier in life, we’re incentivized to be self-sufficient, to focus on what you can accomplish and build up in yourself. In later life, I see some of that shedding away and community becoming a really important value.

There are many types of communities. A faith community isn’t based on shared interests, like a knitting club or a sports team. It’s something deeper and wider. It’s a commitment to being with one another beyond an equal exchange — beyond your ability to pay or repay what I give to you in kind. It’s a commitment to going the extra mile with you, no matter what.

Q: How did the pandemic and spiritual concerns change or influence the nature of spiritual discussions?

Every Sunday, our congregation offers a moment of silence for the victims of covid-19. And every Sunday, we list the names of congregants who are sick and who died, not only of covid. It’s built into our practice to acknowledge sickness and death. And that became something even more needed.

As much as there was a lot of worry about isolation and our older adults, in many ways our ties with one another became stronger. I saw a tremendous amount of compassion — people extending themselves in very gracious ways. People asking, “Can I deliver groceries? Does anyone need a daily phone call? What can I do?”

Q: What about pandemic-related loss?

The grief has been heavy and will live with us for a while. I think that the ongoing work of the church now is to understand what to do in the wake of this pandemic. Because there have been multiple layers of loss — the loss of loved ones, the loss of mobility, the loss of other abilities. There have been significant changes for people, emotionally, mentally, financially or physically. Much of our work will be acknowledging that.

Q: What have you learned about aging through this work?

I’ve learned how real and pervasive ageism is. And I’ve been brought into the world of what ageism does, which is to bring shame in its wake. So that people, instead of moving toward community, if they feel like they’re compromised physically or in some other way, the temptation is to withdraw. I’m pained by that.

Q: What else have you learned?

How wildly creative and liberating aging can be. I’m around people who have all kinds of experience: all these years, all these tragedies and triumphs and everything in between. And I see them every day showing up. There’s this freedom of being without apology.

I’m so appreciative of the creativity. The honesty. And the real radical attention they pay to each other and the world around them. I’m always remarking how many of our older adults pay attention to things that I hadn’t noticed.

Q: It sounds like a form of bravery.

Yes, that’s right. Courage. The courage to almost be countercultural. To say, even if the culture tells me I don’t have a place or I don’t really matter, I’m going to live in a way that pushes back against that. And I’m really going to see myself and others around me. So they’re not invisible, even if they’re invisible in a larger cultural sense.

Those of us who aren’t of advanced age yet, we often think we’re doing a favor by being around older people and listening to their stories. I don’t see it that way at all. It’s not charity to be around older adults. I am a better person, a better minister, our church is a better place because of our older members, not despite them.

It reflects poorly that our imagination is so stunted and limited when it comes to aging — that we can’t see all the gifts that are lost, all the creativity and the care and the relationships that are lost when we don’t interact with older adults. That’s a real spiritual deficit in our society.

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit to submit your requests or tips.


Could a TB Vaccine Protect the Elderly From Severe COVID?

Latest Senior Health News

News Picture: Could a TB Vaccine Protect the Elderly From Severe COVID?By Dennis Thompson HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Aug. 5, 2021 (HealthDay News)

Scientists suspect that a century-old tuberculosis vaccine might be able to protect older adults against the worst ravages of COVID-19.

The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine was first used 1921, and is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. More than 130 million babies worldwide receive this vaccine every year.

But it also is known to calm the immune system, and new research shows that the vaccine might specifically blunt the severe inflammatory response that does so much damage to the body during a COVID infection.

“Typically, older people are more susceptible to severe COVID due to their ability to make exuberant inflammatory responses,” said senior researcher Dr. Subash Babu, scientific director of the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis in Chennai, India. “Therefore, BCG might be useful by lowering this propensity.”

The BCG vaccine already is used to modulate people’s immune reaction in other diseases, most notably bladder cancer, said Dr. Waleed Javaid, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York City.

Health experts in some nations with high COVID rates and little access to COVID vaccines have considered using BCG as a stopgap measure to protect older adults, researchers said in background notes.

But, they said, there have been concerns that the BCG vaccine might actually increase older folks’ inflammation response and worsen their COVID infection.

In this study, researchers gave the BCG vaccine to 82 healthy people between 60 and 80 years old.

A month after vaccination, they found decreases in biochemicals linked to inflammation. Researchers also observed a decrease in enzymes that crop up during lung inflammation, which suggested that BCG might limit lung damage during COVID infection.

“BCG can potentially be useful as an adjuvant vaccine to the SARS-CoV-2-specific vaccines, and it needs to be tested for its ability to function as a therapeutic vaccine” that could be given as a treatment during infection, Babu said.

“BCG is safe and well tolerated, and widely available — it is the most widely used vaccine in the world,” he said.

But things aren’t as cut and dried as all that, said Mount Sinai’s Javaid, warning that no one should mistake the BCG vaccine as an alternative form of protection against COVID.

This new study didn’t include a single COVID patient, and so it didn’t directly test the BCG vaccine’s effectiveness at all against the new coronavirus, said Javaid, who had no role in the new research.

“This cannot be an alternate in any way to the COVID vaccine. This cannot be used as a stopgap,” he said.

“What we see here is that it does suppress some of the immune indicators that are otherwise active during COVID infection, and we know that during COVID infection part of the damage done to our body is because of our immune reaction,” Javaid continued. “A lot of studies need to be done to prove or disprove these effects.”

The concept is good in theory, he concluded, “but it still needs to be proven more concretely.”

The findings were published Aug. 4 in the journal Science Advances.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about the BCG vaccine.

SOURCES: Subash Babu, MBBS, PhD, scientific director, National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis, Chennai, India; Waleed Javaid, MD, director, infection prevention and control, Mount Sinai Downtown, New York City; Science Advances, Aug. 4, 2021

Copyright © 2021 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

Just 250 Fewer Calories Per Day Brings Big Health Rewards for Obese Seniors

Latest Senior Health News

News Picture: Just 250 Fewer Calories Per Day Brings Big Health Rewards for Obese Seniors

MONDAY, Aug. 2, 2021 (HealthDay News)

Seniors, it may be easier than you think to undo the damage of decades of bad eating and precious little exercise.

New research shows that cutting just 250 calories a day and exercising moderately could lead to not only weight loss but improved vascular health in older obese adults.

These lifestyle changes may help offset age-related increases in aortic stiffness, which is a measure of vascular health and impacts heart disease.

“This is the first study to assess the effects of aerobic exercise training with and without reducing calories on aortic stiffness, which was measured via cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging [CMR] to obtain detailed images of the aorta,” said study author Tina Brinkley, an associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“We sought to determine whether adding caloric restriction for weight loss would lead to greater improvements in vascular health compared to aerobic exercise alone in older adults with obesity,” Brinkley explained.

In a randomized, controlled trial with 160 sedentary, obese adults aged 65 to 79, participants were assigned to one of three intervention groups for 20 weeks. One group ate their regular diet and added exercise. The second group added exercise and restricted calories by about 250 per day. The third group exercised and reduced calories by 600 calories per day.

The two calorie-restricted groups received premade lunches and dinners with less than 30% of calories from fat and a set amount of protein for their ideal body weight, prepared under the direction of a registered dietitian. The participants made their own breakfasts using the dietitian-approved menu.

All participants received supervised aerobic exercise training four days per week at the Geriatric Research Center at Wake Forest.

Researchers then used cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging to measure aortic arch pulse wave velocity (PWV), which is the speed at which blood travels through the aorta, and distensibility, or the ability of the aorta to expand and contract. A stiffer aorta has higher PWV values and lower distensibility values.

Weight loss of nearly 10%, or about 20 pounds, was associated with significant improvements in aortic stiffness only in the group that trimmed 250 calories. That group also had a 21% increase in distensibility and an 8% decrease in PWV.

None of the aortic stiffness measures changed significantly in either of the two other groups.

Both of the calorie-restricted groups showed bigger changes in BMI, total fat mass, percent body fat, abdominal fat and waist circumference than the exercise-only group.

Weight loss was similar between the calorie-restricted groups despite nearly two times fewer calories in the intensive calorie restriction group.

The findings appear Aug. 2 in the journal Circulation.

“These results suggest that combining exercise with modest calorie restriction — as opposed to more intensive calorie restriction or no calorie restriction — likely maximizes the benefits on vascular health, while also optimizing weight loss and improvements in body composition and body fat distribution,” Brinkley said in a journal news release.

“The finding that higher-intensity calorie restriction may not be necessary or advised has important implications for weight loss recommendations to improve cardiovascular disease risk in older adults with obesity,” she said.


How to Lose Weight Without Dieting: 24 Fast Facts See Slideshow

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on cardiovascular disease.

SOURCE: Circulation, news release, Aug. 2, 2021

Cara Murez

Copyright © 2021 HealthDay. All rights reserved.