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The Graying of the American Churches : Religious Leaders Discuss Responsibilities to the Nation's Burgeoning Elderly Population

April 06, 1986|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Aging can become a means to increase spirituality, "a way to light," Arthur S. Flemming said in keynoting a recent two-day program here at the 32nd annual meeting of the American Society on Aging.

While Flemming, 80, spoke of an opportunity for the elderly to "grow by giving, mature to giving" by helping others, the panel responding to his remarks on aging and spirituality found America's religions perplexed by the burgeoning of an older population that has never before existed.

Flemming, secretary of Housing, Education and Welfare under President Eisenhower and a member of the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, presently chairs the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights in Washington. Flemming also chaired the 1961 and 1971 White House conferences on aging.

He spoke first of the increased interest in aging, an interest that he hopes will extend to those "who are going to assume leadership positions in congregations," which hold "untapped resources" for the older population.

Innate Source

Flemming contended that progress is being made, that theologians are beginning to focus on spirituality as an innate resource.

"Our spirituality can make the difference between aging being the way to darkness or the way to the light," he said. "There are older people for whom there is only darkness, no sign of color, no one to be trusted, resentment, jealousy and, sometimes, rage. There is segregation and loss of self."

But, he said, aging can become "a way of light." He urged greater contributions from the elderly to society as well as more support for the weaker elderly by those who are younger.

Caring begins by obeying the commandment "you find underlined in the Old and New testaments: Love thy neighbor as thyself," Flemming said.

"That does not place responsibility to like my neighbor. We can't be commanded to like someone; that must be a feeling from within," he said.

"We love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not always like ourselves." Flemming asked his audience to consider the implications of older people implementing the commandment.

"There are people desperately in need of home care and it is difficult to recruit people, either paid or those who work as volunteers. Here is an opportunity to work to help some persons in their home to achieve their possibilities.

Latchkey Children

"And what does it say to us as we read about latchkey children? In Washington we have a hot line, a way for latchkey children to have access to persons who hopefully can be of help to them. Founded at the suggestion of the public school system, the hot line for latchkey children literally has been swamped with calls.

"I have urged them (the hot line people) to reach out to groups with older persons to come in and handle those calls.

"What does our commitment say to us as we confront the whole area of poverty in community after community? What kind of support should we give to public programs for the needs of the poor?"

While Flemming described the greater attention to the inner person as good, he said it should be accompanied and followed by "re-engagement . . . a moving from disengagement to re-engagement."

He also called on the elderly to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens by applying political pressure, making contributions in public life and international relations.

In implementing the commandment to love thy neighbor, Flemming, a Methodist layman who headed the National Council of Churches for three years, said that "there are no waivers, not for certain persons, no waiver for age, no hiding place as far as this commandment is concerned.

"We can also stress that for those who follow this there is great strength and great joy."

After Flemming's keynote address, the following panelists were introduced by Betty J. Letzig, chairwoman of the programs on "Religion, Spirituality and Aging" and immediate past president of the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging, which co-sponsored the program Sunday and Monday:

The Panel Members

Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, San Francisco; Msgr. Charles Fahey, director, Third Age Center, Fordham University, New York; Michael C. Hendrickson Ph.D., senior research scientist, Center for Health and Social Services Research Inc., Los Angeles; and Yvonne Rand, ordained Zen Buddhist priest and co-director of the Zen Center, Sausalito.

Sparer responded first to Flemming's presentation, noting that the Jewish admonition to "honor thy father and thy mother" specifically omits the word love.

"The word honor is rooted in the word for weight and honor is a commitment in this regard," Sparer said, "whereas love is an emotion. Judaism stresses that the parent-child relationship is for all of life.

"The child must succeed in his own life and be a sustenance to his parents emotionally and financially."

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