Those aging Boomers? Help from Amy Hanson

Amy Hanson may be the best-prepared person in the country, right now, to help congregations turn the tidal wave of Baby Boomer senior citizens into an opportunity for growth and transformation.

Her scholarship includes a master’s degree in gerontology, followed by a doctorate in human sciences from the University of Nebraska. She has worked in congregations and retirement communities, has a deep commitment to her faith—and now has distilled a wealth of research into a handy new book, Baby Boomers and Beyond: Tapping the Ministry Talents and Passions of Adults over 50.” (That’s from the prestigious Jossey-Bass Leadership Network imprint.) Amy regularly teaches via workshops and talks—and is sure to be doing a whole lot more of that as Boomers pour across the age-65 threshold every day. (Hint to religious leaders reading this interview: Get her book now and, if you are moved to schedule time with Amy, do that soon before she her schedule fills completely.) She and her husband Jon, live in Omaha, Nebraska, with their two children. Amy is 37.

In Part 1, we shared an excerpt from Amy’s new book. Today, we welcome Amy for an interview.


DAVID: Your work is changing and expanding all the time, it seems.

AMY: That’s right. I’m not on staff at a church right now. I am on the adjunct faculty at a variety of places. I work widely with pastors and leaders in congregations. I may talk at a convention or conference—or to a small gathering of pastors. I also do consulting. I sit with church staffs and work with them on how to hire somebody for this area—or on how to develop new programs. If someone is interested in reaching me, my website is the best place to connect with me:

DAVID: You write about the difficulty of finding terms that are accurate, that aren’t offensive and that people actually will accept. In the middle of your book, you write that “old, elderly, senior and golden-ager” are all negative words. But you also point out that we’ve simply got to find some useful terms to describe these huge waves of men and women. Throughout the book, you mention all kinds of categories: frail elderly people who are maybe age 85-plus; seniors who are roughly 70-plus; the “new old” who are 50 to 70 and are mostly Baby Boomers. So, did I just offend a bunch of people with those terms?

AMY: This is difficult and it can be confusing. For example, when someone hears that I work in older adult ministry, they’ll ask me: So, you visit nursing homes? That indicates to me that they have a very narrow focus on what older adult ministry is, shaped by how our popular culture sees aging.

There are frail elderly groups who have had declining health and need some assistance and care. They have some limitations, like maybe they can’t drive anymore. Visitation and transportation are major needs in their lives. Then, there’s this middle group primarily made up of the builder generation. They are OK with that title of “seniors” and they’re now about 70-plus in age. But even that group is so varied! Some have declining health while others are still running marathons. By and large, most churches have done something with this group but they probably haven’t recognized all of the potential there. Then there is this younger set, primarily aging Baby Boomers and also some people who were born in 1940 to 1945 who can identify with the Baby Boomers. They completely reject anything that smacks of being considered older or aging. Many of these are adults who are caring for their own older relatives at the same time they are preparing for their own retirement.

Why Bother to Talk about Aging Now?

DAVID: If they’re so stubborn about not even considering the aging process, then why start working with Baby Boomers as an aging population, at this point?

AMY: For one thing they are arguably the largest generation in our history. There are so many of them! We’ve never had this many older adults, people who are more than likely going to live 20 or 30 more years. And, whether they like to talk about it or not, they are aging. Now is the time to talk about this, because Boomers themselves are saying that they don’t want to approach later life like their parents did. They don’t want to go sit on a rock and fish or play shuffleboard. They want to invest their lives now in meaningful work. They want to continue making an impact with their lives. This is so important for pastors and congregational leaders to recognize. These people are not going to settle for potlucks and bus trips to Branson and folding church newsletters on Saturday mornings. If the church doesn’t engage these people, then these people are going to move elsewhere to find opportunities for work and other activities that they feel are making a positive difference in the world.

Aging is a God-ordained season in life. We all are aging, regardless of what our number is at the moment.

Busting Myths about Aging in America

DAVID: You’re really torpedoing major myths in this book. There’s so much packed between these covers that I really hope readers of this interview will go on, purchase the book—and read the whole thing. We’ve outlined some of your basic assumptions for readers, so let’s get into a few more specifics.

Last year, we featured a very popular series of articles with theologian Stanley Hauerwas and one entire article was about Hauerwas’ myth-busting claim: “For Christians, there is no Florida.” You make a similar argument in your book. Why is this myth such a problem for congregations?

AMY:  Our churches have bought into lots of myths—like the one about older adults wanting to slow down. We communicate that to people: As you get older, slow down and let younger people take over. This becomes a perpetuating problem. We need to be doing all we can to shine the light on folks who are 100 percent still active in our faith communities. We need to start making it more normal for people to continue as an active part of our communities, rather than assuming that it’s time to step aside.

That comment from Hauerwas makes me think of this: I used to tell people that retirement is never mentioned in the Bible. It turns out that there arguably is one passage: There’s a mention in Numbers. In that passage, the priests who turn 50 are supposed to stop doing the heavy work of carrying and the younger ones are supposed to take on that role. But, the older ones were not supposed to just coast and do whatever they wanted. They were to continue serving—and I want to attach to that helping and mentoring the younger ones. Never is there any implication that you get to a point in life where you get to coast and focus on yourself.

DAVID: In fact, the Bible is pretty harsh on people who feel they can reach that point, right?

AMY: I think we should teach more out of Luke 12 about the rich fool who builds up barns and feels he now can take it easy and be merry. He’s called a fool in Luke 12. Teachings like that are hard to swallow but they need to be communicated to adults in their 50s and 60s. If someone says they are a Christ follower, and they have given their life to Christ, there is no age parameter.

Busting Myths: The Terrifying Fear of Memory Loss

DAVID: You bust a bunch of myths. You shoot down, for example, the myth that older adults can’t adapt to change, that older workers are not as effective, that most older adults experience memory loss.

AMY: That’s a big one! It’s the No. 1 fear for Baby Boomers. They have interacted with people who have Alzheimer’s and they’re terrified about that. Birthday cards make fun of memory loss, but that is not an automatic thing just because you turn 70 or 80 or whatever age. In absence of disease, you’re not going to lose your memory.

The other one you mentioned that’s a huge problem in congregations is the myth that older adults can’t change. You’ve heard people say: She’s stuck in her ways. Assuming that immediately limits what a congregation can do and it strips away dignity from older people. The truth is: Older people actually have experienced and adapted to more changes in their lives than most of us who are younger. They can teach us about adapting to change, if we will turn to them.

DAVID: You emphasize another point that we talked about recently with both Marcus Borg and Kenda Creasy Dean: the need to cross generational lines in intentional ways in our congregations. We’ve moved in the direction of age segregation for far too long.

AMY: Absolutely. It’s been easier to segment people by age. Because it’s so easy to group people that way, we’ve grabbed hold of it. Our culture segments people that way, so why shouldn’t the church?

Over and over again through scripture, we learn that one generation should pass along to the next our wisdom through interaction in daily life. This matters so much, because the church is one of those rare places in our world where we have multiple generations coming together each week. The best way to share faith is through interaction, through conversation, through friendship. When we form friendships that cross generational lines, we break down stereotypes.

DAVID: Ideas for doing this? Marcus and Kenda both had some suggestions. In your book, readers will find ideas, but toss out an idea here.

AMY: One of the most effective ways is to get generations serving side by side—both swinging hammers for Habitat for Humanity or both cooking a meal together. Too often, we segregate age groups even in our service. Age differences don’t matter as much when everyone is working toward a common good.

DAVID: And that’s where we return to those ornery, opinionated, stubborn Baby Boomers. They’re a natural bridge, right?

AMY: Boomers were a little more “me” focused as they grew up, but now they have their own families and family relationships are very important to them. Now, they’re reaching a point in life when they’re thinking about leaving a legacy. What really mattered in their lives? I think this idea of forming intergenerational communities will resonate with Baby Boomers. They certainly don’t want to be locked away in a box.

Here’s the thing, though, as we all keep talking about this and everybody agrees these are great ideas: Why aren’t more churches doing this already!?!

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