In my last article, I spent most of the time dealing with the recently-formed Ministry for Loneliness in the United Kingdom. The new government ministry (department) was set up to deal with the pervasive loneliness experienced by the elderly who live at home and have little contact with the outside world. It was estimated that this was a problem for over 10 percent of the population.
The Ministry for Loneliness proposed to establish a program that would bring together government, non-government agencies and churches to create a comprehensive outreach to the elderly.
In this article, I want to suggest some ways in which parishes in the United States could attend to this problem.
*The young would be taught to consider constantly as they grow up their responsibility to parents, grandparents, and other older members of their families and to plan their lives with an eye to being actively responsible for their elders.
*Households could “adopt” an elderly person or a lonely couple and draw up a plan for their care – assuming their relatives are not taking care of matters. This would involve more than an occasional visit, but would include assistance with food shopping, transportation to church and the doctor, house cleaning, gas and electric bills, and tax preparation.
*People would reach out to elderly neighbors in times of crisis, especially at the death of a loved one. Here neighbors could be drawn in to provide visits and meals. They would attend the vigil, the funeral Mass, the internment, and the post-funeral lunch – which they would provide if the parish does not.
*Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion would ascertain what home-bound parishioners need (beyond Communion), and report to the parish social worker, who would develop a systematic plan to respond to the particular needs of each person.
*It would not be difficult to organize a prayer chain, which would keep the home-bound in contact with fellow parishioners. This could also create the habit of elderly people calling each other on a regular basis.
*Young people would be drawn into the ministry of visiting the sick and homebound at least once a month – always with adults. They could be encouraged to call regularly or write occasional cards to those living alone or in a care center.
*Meals on Wheels programs would be organized or developed so that no one in the area goes without for lack of food. (There is plenty of evidence that many elderly people do not have enough to eat – truly a scandal in a Christian community!)
*I mentioned a parish social worker. A parish could hire a full-time person to coordinate this ministry. A smaller parish could share such a person with another parish. It might be possible to make this an ecumenical venture, and to work with local government agencies.
*All this would require a considerable amount of money and a large number of volunteers. As for money, it is relatively easy to raise money for charitable causes. The parish itself could set aside at least 10 percent of its budget for charity. This would involve a considerable shift in the parish’s mission and would need a pastor who could lead this ministry with enthusiasm and energy.
*Is all this not fantasy? Not if priorities are revamped. The foundation of Catholic hospitals, orphanages and schools was a major, seemingly impossible, task in the early 20th century. Anything is possible where there is a vision and a will behind it.
*There is mostly nothing new in these suggestions. The ministry already exists to one degree or another. They just need to be intensified and placed at the center of a parish’s mission.
Msgr M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.