Ministry, Disability, and Aging
This year, at the annual Disability Concerns Canada conference, keynote speaker Dr. Anthony Diekema spoke about disability advocacy in his presentation, “From Powerless to Powerful.” He addressed the topic from many perspectives including aging.
When my mother was in early stage dementia, she would reflect sometimes on the decreasing lack of control she had over her own life, and was fond of quoting from John 21:18, “When you are old someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.” I think it was one of the ways mom coped with her own increasing limitation.
Like my mom, who turns 91 next month, increasing numbers of people in North America are growing very old. And like mom, over half of people over 75 years of age live with disabilities. Any congregation with older members has members who live with disabilities. (Disability Concerns’ newsletter featured two issues on aging recently: Issue 77 and Issue 93.)
Aging typically brings with it increasing limitation. Diekema, who is in his late 70's and open about his own hearing loss, named a number of reactions that aging people receive from others as when disability comes into their lives:
- Being ignored and forgotten; increasingly marginalized and underestimated
- Being dependent on others, overlooked and often quietly “talked about”
- Losing control and becoming “childlike” as aging progresses; put down and bossed around.
He noted that people react similarly to anyone who lives with disabilities. Therefore, he argued, “People with life-long and obvious disabilities can be very helpful in this “aging” process and often bring special insights to be conveyed to the “elderly”. They can easily establish special bonds and kinship with the elderly in regard to their increasingly common experiences of marginalization and dependence.” Diekema sited the example of his own son, Mark, who has obvious physical disabilities and was able to be of help to people at a senior care center where he worked for a time.
Diekema has identified for church leaders yet another gift that people with disabilities bring to their churches. They can challenge congregations for underestimating anyone who lives with disability, and they can serve as mentors to the entire congregation as the temporarily able-bodied face a future that most likely will hold disability in store.
Churches that marginalize their members of any age who live with disability imperil their own health. On the flip side, Diekema took Disability Concerns own slogan* to a new level by saying, "When everybody belongs and everybody serves, everybody wins."