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Primetime: the future of retirement?

By John W. Kennedy

When I was growing up I didn’t know a lot of “old” people, although I considered my parents, already in their 40s when I was born, fairly ancient. Three of my four grandparents died before my birth, and my only surviving grandmother died when I was 8. People in their 60s seemed positively antediluvian. The few living grandparents of my friends and relatives didn’t hold jobs anymore. Some could barely move.

But a great demographic shift has occurred during my lifetime. Americans are living a lot longer. They are eating better, exercising more, receiving improved medical care and remaining sharp mentally.

Certainly our bodies slow down as we age, but 65 isn’t necessarily a date with the Grim Reaper anymore. My dad continued preaching weekly until age 84. My mom, at 85, drives to church every week and leads a weekly Bible study in the assisted living facility where she resides.

And that isn’t unusual. This generation of senior citizens has been blessed with more years — and more opportunities. The most content seniors are those who attend church regularly and are involved in church programs. In November 2003, Newsweek reported the latest in a string of studies connecting church activity with physical well-being. People who don’t attend church die at the average age of 75; those who attend more than once a week live the longest, to an average of 83 years, according to research.

While there are millions of infirm aged people in the nation today, as never before there are millions who retire and enjoy another 10, 20 or even 30 productive years that can be devoted to Christian service. And multitudes keep right on working, even as octogenarians.

A century ago only 4 percent of the U.S. population even reached age 65. Now 12.4 percent of Americans are 65 and older. Life expectancy jumped to 78 at the end of the 20th century compared to 47 years at the beginning.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 12.3 million Americans older than 65 existed in 1950. Now there are 35.6 million who are 65 and older, with 4.6 million of them 85 and older.

Census projections show that America will continue to age. By 2020, the government projects 16.3 percent of us will be 65 and older and by 2030 the figure mushrooms to 19.4 percent, or 71.5 million people.

In addition, more senior citizens are able to care for themselves. According to a Duke University study, two decades ago 26.2 percent of those 65 and older had a disability that kept them from daily activities such as cooking, cleaning or shopping. That percentage dropped to 19.7 percent by the turn of the century. In the same span, research indicates the number of elderly in nursing homes fell to 3.4 percent from 6.2 percent.

In response to the extension of life, 3,500 Assemblies of God congregations have specific senior adult ministries, and the number is growing steadily.

With changes in the aging process, only those now older than 80 are considered “elderly” by the A/G Senior Adult Ministries Department. Those in their 70s are called “seniors,” while those in their 50s and 60s are designated as “middle adults.”

“The whole country views aging in a totally different way than the generations that preceded,” says Stephen Sparks, national director of A/G Senior Adult Ministries. “Older is younger.”

Sparks, 52, wants to see seniors refocus their energies. He notes Paul’s commitment to “finish the race well” (Acts 20:24) and points out there is no biblical advice to retire from the Lord’s service.

“Previous generations had to basically work until they couldn’t anymore, then they were cared for by their family and then they died,” says Harold Koenig, who in 1995 founded the Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality & Health at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “This generation, however, is retiring at a younger age and living longer after they retire,” Koenig told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

It’s an unprecedented phenomenon: older adults in fairly good health with time on their hands. Because of pension plans and government assistance programs many are doing well financially.

Some who protested the Vietnam War and burned their draft cards are now rebelling against a new cause: being labeled old. “The baby boomers are getting older and they don’t like the idea of retirement,” says David Yannatone, 54, adult ministries director at First Assembly of God in Fort Myers, Fla. “When they get the AARP card in the mail they burn it.”

Yannatone, who began as a youth minister 32 years ago, foresees a time in the near future when young people will be trained as “senior adult interns.” Because this will be the largest age group, it will be a population ripe for the gospel and in need of ministry, much the way high schools and college campuses today are targets for Youth Alive and Chi Alpha.


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