Navigating Aging

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 khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

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Calming Computer Jitters: Help for Seniors Who Aren’t Tech-Savvy

Six months ago, Cindy Sanders, 68, bought a computer so she could learn how to email and have Zoom chats with her great-grandchildren.

It’s still sitting in a box, unopened.

“I didn’t know how to set it up or how to get help,” said Sanders, who lives in Philadelphia and has been extremely careful during the coronavirus pandemic.

Like Sanders, millions of older adults are newly motivated to get online and participate in digital offerings after being shut inside, hoping to avoid the virus, for more than a year. But many need assistance and aren’t sure where to get it.

A recent survey from AARP, conducted in September and October, highlights the quandary. It found that older adults boosted technology purchases during the pandemic but more than half (54%) said they needed a better grasp of the devices they’d acquired. Nearly 4 in 10 people (37%) admitted they weren’t confident about using these technologies.

Sanders, a retired hospital operating room attendant, is among them. “Computers put the fear in me,” she told me, “but this pandemic, it’s made me realize I have to make a change and get over that.”

With a daughter’s help, Sanders plans to turn on her new computer and figure out how to use it by consulting materials from Generations on Line. Founded in 1999, the Philadelphia organization specializes in teaching older adults about digital devices and navigating the internet. Sanders recently discovered it through a local publication for seniors.

Before the pandemic, Generations on Line provided free in-person training sessions at senior centers, public housing complexes, libraries and retirement centers. When those programs shut down, it created an online curriculum for smartphones and tablets (www.generationsonline.org/apps) and new tutorials on Zoom and telehealth as well as a “family coaching kit” to help older adults with technology. All are free and available to people across the country.

Demand for Generations on Line’s services rose tenfold during the pandemic as many older adults became dangerously isolated and cut off from needed services.

Those who had digital devices and knew how to use them could do all kinds of activities online: connect with family and friends, shop for groceries, order prescriptions, take classes, participate in telehealth sessions and make appointments to get covid vaccines. Those without were often at a loss — with potentially serious consequences.

“I have never described my work as a matter of life or death before,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, an advocacy group for expanding broadband access. “But that’s what happened during the pandemic, especially when it came to vaccines.”

Other organizations specializing in digital literacy for older adults are similarly seeing a surge of interest. Cyber-Seniors, which pairs older adults with high school or college students who serve as technology mentors, has trained more than 10,000 seniors since April 2020 — three times the average of the past several years. (Services are free and grants and partnerships with government agencies and nonprofit organizations supply funding, as is true for several of the organizations discussed here.)

Older adults using digital devices for the first time can call 1-844-217-3057 and be coached over the phone until they’re comfortable pursuing online training. “A lot of organizations are giving out tablets to seniors, which is fantastic, but they don’t even know the basics, and that’s where we come in,” said Brenda Rusnak, Cyber-Seniors’ managing director. One-on-one coaching is also available.

Lyla Panichas, 78, who lives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, got an iPad three months ago from Rhode Island’s digiAGE program — one of many local technology programs for older adults that started during the pandemic. She is getting help from the University of Rhode Island’s Cyber-Seniors program, which plans to offer digital training to 200 digiAGE participants in communities hardest hit by covid-19 by the end of this year.

“The first time my tutor called me, I mean, the kids rattle things off so fast. I said, Wait a minute. You have a little old lady here. Let me keep up with you,” Panichas said. “I couldn’t keep up and I ended up crying.”

Panichas persisted, however, and when her tutor called again the next week she began “being able to grasp things.” Now, she plays games online, streams movies and has Zoom get-togethers with her son, in Arizona, and her sister, in Virginia. “It’s kind of lifted my fears of being isolated,” she told me.

OATS (Older Adults Technology Services) is set to expand the reach of its digital literacy programs significantly after a recent affiliation with AARP. It runs a national hotline for people seeking technical support, 1-920-666-1959, and operates Senior Planet technology training centers in six cities (New York; Denver; Rockville, Maryland; Plattsburgh, New York; San Antonio, Texas; and Palo Alto, California). All in-person classes converted to digital programming once the pandemic closed down much of the country.

Germaine St. John, 86, a former mayor of Laramie, Wyoming, found an online community of seniors and made dear friends after signing up with Senior Planet Colorado during the pandemic. “I have a great support system here in Laramie, but I was very cautious about going out because I was in the over-80 group,” she told me. “I don’t know what I would have done without these activities.”

Older adults anywhere in the country can take Senior Planet virtual classes for free. (A weekly schedule is available at https://seniorplanet.org/get-involved/online/.) Through its AARP partnership, OATS is offering another set of popular classes at AARP’s Virtual Community Center. Tens of thousands of older adults now participate.

Aging Connected (https://agingconnected.org/), another new OATS initiative, is focusing on bringing 1 million older adults online by the end of 2022.

An immediate priority is to educate older adults about the government’s new $32 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit for low-income individuals, which was funded by a coronavirus relief package and became available last month. That short-term program provides $50 monthly discounts on high-speed internet services and a one-time discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a computer or tablet. But the benefit isn’t automatic. People must apply to get funding.

“We are calling on anybody over the age of 50 to try the internet and learn what the value can be,” said Thomas Kamber, OATS’ executive director. Nearly 22 million seniors don’t have access to high-speed internet services, largely because these services are unaffordable or unavailable, according to a January report co-sponsored by OATS and the Humana Foundation, its Aging Connected partner.

Other new ventures are also helping older adults with technology. Candoo Tech, which launched in February 2019, works with seniors directly in 32 states as well as organizations such as libraries, senior centers and retirement centers.

For various fees, Candoo Tech provides technology training by phone or virtually, as-needed support from “tech concierges,” advice about what technology to buy and help preparing devices for out-of-the-box use.

“You can give an older adult a device, access to the internet and amazing content, but if they don’t have someone showing them what to do, it’s going to sit there unused,” said Liz Hamburg, Candoo’s president and chief executive.

GetSetUp’s model relies on older adults to teach skills to their peers in small, interactive classes. It started in February 2020 with a focus on tech training, realizing that “fear of technology” was preventing older adults from exploring “a whole world of experiences online,” said Neil Dsouza, founder and chief executive.

For older adults who’ve never used digital devices, retired teachers serve as tech counselors over the phone. “Someone can call in [1-888-559-1614] and we’ll walk them through the whole process of downloading an app, usually Zoom, and taking our classes,” Dsouza said. GetSetUp is offering about 80 hours of virtual technology instruction each week.

For more information about tech training for older adults in your area, contact your local library, senior center, department on aging or Area Agency on Aging. Also, each state has a National Assistive Technology Act training center for older adults and people with disabilities. These centers let people borrow devices and offer advice about financial assistance. Some started collecting and distributing used smartphones, tablets and computers during the pandemic.

For information about a program in your area, go to https://www.at3center.net/.

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Restoring a Sense of Belonging: The Unsung Importance of Casual Relationships for Older Adults

In May, Vincent Keenan traveled from Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia, for a wedding — his first trip out of town since the start of the pandemic.

“Hi there!” he called out to customers at a gas station where he’d stopped on his way to the airport. “How’s your day going?” he said he asked the Transportation Security Administration agent who checked his ID. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he exclaimed to guests at the wedding, most of whom were strangers.

“I was striking up conversations with people I didn’t know everywhere I went,” said Keenan, 65, who retired in December as chief executive officer of the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians. “Even if they just grunted at me, it was a great day.”

It wasn’t only close friends Keenan missed seeing during 15 months of staying home and trying to avoid covid-19. It was also dozens of casual acquaintances and people he ran into at social events, restaurants, church and other venues.

These relationships with people we hardly know or know only superficially are called “weak ties” — a broad and amorphous group that can include anyone from your neighbors or your pharmacist to members of your book group or fellow volunteers at a school.

Like Keenan, who admitted he’s an unabashed extrovert, many older adults are renewing these connections with pleasure after losing touch during the pandemic.

Casual relationships have several benefits, according to researchers who’ve studied them. These ties can cultivate a sense of belonging, provide bursts of positive energy, motivate us to engage in activities, and expose us to new information and opportunities — all without the emotional challenges that often attend close relationships with family and friends.

Multiple studies have found that older adults with a broad array of “weak” as well as “close” ties enjoy better physical and psychological well-being and live longer than people with narrower, less diverse social networks. Also, older adults with broad, diverse social networks have more opportunities to develop new relationships when cherished friends or family members move away or die.

“Feeling connected to other people, not just the people who are closest to you, turns out to be incredibly important,” said Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Essex in England.

Sandstrom’s research has found that people who talk to more acquaintances daily tend to be happier than people who have fewer of these interactions. Even talking to strangers makes people feel less lonely and more trusting, she has discovered.

Claire Lomax, 76, of Oakland, California, who’s unmarried, has made a practice of chatting with strangers all her life. Among her greatest pleasures in recent years was volunteering at the Oakland Police Department, where she would ask patrol officers about their families or what was happening at the station.

“I never wanted a man of my own, but I like to be around them,” she explained. “So, I got to have my guy buzz without any complications, and I felt recognized and appreciated,” Lomax told me. Since becoming fully vaccinated, she’s volunteering in person at the police stations again — a deep source of satisfaction.

Even people who describe themselves as introverts enjoy the positivity that casual interactions can engender.

“In fact, people are more likely to have purely positive experiences with weak ties” because emotional complications are absent, said Katherine Fiori, a prominent researcher and chair of the psychology department at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

Lynn Eggers, 75, a retired psychologist in Minneapolis, loved going to coffee shops and the gym before covid hit. “In both places, you can be in a group and alone,” she told me. “You can choose to talk to someone or not. But you feel you’re part of the community.”

At a light-rail station, Eggers would strike up conversations with strangers: two police officers who told her about growing up in Somalia, a working-class Texan whose daughter won a scholarship to Harvard, a young Vietnamese woman whose parents worried she was abandoning her culture.

When Eggers stopped taking public transportation for fear of covid, she missed “getting these glimpses into other ways of seeing the world.” Instead, she started chatting with neighbors in daily walks around her neighborhood — another way to feel connected.

Many people may have found that neighbors, mail carriers and delivery people became more important during the pandemic — simply because they were around when others were not, said Karen Fingerman, a professor of human ecology at the University of Texas-Austin. As pandemic restrictions lift, “the key is to get out in daily life again” and reengage with a variety of people and activities, she recommended.

Helen Bartos, 69, a retired clinical psychologist, lives in a condominium community in Rochester, New York. “With covid, a whole group of us started getting together outside,” she told me. “We’d bring out chairs and drinks, wear masks, and sit around and talk. It was very bonding. All of these people are neighbors; now I would call some of them friends.”

Ellie Mixter-Keller, 66, of Milwaukee, turned to social gatherings sponsored by the activity group Meetup six years ago after a divorce disrupted her life. “It was my salvation. It exposed me to a bunch of new people who I didn’t have to date or have to dinner,” she said. Now that she’s fully vaccinated, she’s busy almost every night of the week attending Meetup events and informal get-togethers arranged by people she’s met.

In some cases, varying views of covid vaccines have made casual interactions more difficult. Patty Beemer, 61, of Hermosa Beach, California, used to go swing-dancing two or three times a week before the pandemic. “It’d be 20 seconds of chitchat and just dance” before all those events were canceled, she said.

In the past several months, however, the swing-dance community in and around Los Angeles has split, with some events requiring proof of vaccination and others open to everyone.

“Before, everyone danced with everyone, without really thinking about it. Now, I don’t know if it’s going to be like that. I’m not sure how much mixing is going to happen,” Beemer said. “And that sense of shared humanity, which is so meaningful to all of us, may be harder to find.”

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 khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

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