Demographics in The Future Church
by Michael Dion
John L. Allen Jr. is known as an expert of the going-ons of the Catholic world. As a writer for the National Catholic Reporter who covers the Vatican beat, he has a particularly advantageous viewpoint when it comes to understanding the trends of the Catholic Church. In The Future Church, he examines the trends that he considers to be particularly important. The chapter on "New Demography" was of great interest to me. I have chosen to reflect on the demographics of the world and Church as it relates to the elderly and the future, in light of my own experience and my understanding of the Gospel.
Statistically speaking, many areas of the world are heading towards an age crisis. Allen cites fertility rates to support this thesis. Most of Europe is below the 2.1 children per woman necessary to maintain a stable population, and as a result, the future indicates that those countries will have more old people needing support from fewer and fewer young people.
This country has managed to stay above or around the replacement rate, due much in part to Hispanic families, but even that trend is not certain to continue. This does not bode well for either the young or the old if they are planning to live the kind of life everybody nowadays expects to live.
My parents have bucked the birthrate trend by having many children, and my dad has said something that sheds light on this situation by way of contrast. More than once, only half-joking, he has told me and my siblings, "We didn't have eight children so we could get stuck away in a nursing home when we're old!" Because of the way they raised us, I fully expect all of my siblings to want to see my parents comfortable in old age and surrounded by family when their health starts failing.
With so many of us, it will be easier for them to have family available to them at any given time. We will be able to share the responsibility in taking care of them to a greater degree than most families could. This not absolutely true for big families, and it is possible that some of us might end up moving somewhere distant. However, there is simply more likely to be more of us around because of our number.
Many people of their own generation, and even many younger than them, will not have that blessing. In American culture, it is understood that YOU are primarily responsible for your own life after you retire. People are told to buy stocks and mutual funds and get their 401(k) as early as possible in life because that means more comfort and security in the golden years. There is no longer a cultural expectation that one's children will be one's caretakers, especially if one's one or two children are doing everything necessary to provide for the success of their own children in the future. There is little payoff for having kids, financially speaking.
Allen notes that some of this stems from the drive from agrarian to urban culture, where children become a liability rather than an asset. The unfortunate outcome is that when they stop being capable of living independently, Grandma and Grandpa are often forced into institutional living, since there are not enough family members with enough time to take care of them.
I have encountered many old people in difficult and lonely situations through my experiences with homebound and nursing home ministry, and it often difficult to see people living in those conditions. They find themselves treated as a liability rather than a blessing. Their opportunities to pass on their wisdom and stories and experience become few or non-existent. It is no wonder that American culture has become obsessed with youth - nobody wants to end up like those old people. Complicating this issue is the fact that there is going to be less and less people paying money to support more people living off pensions. The burden of the elderly is going to be felt in a significant way in terms of time, energy, and finances.
For a Christian living in the Western world, there appears to be difficult challenges ahead in dealing with this. The easiest way to deal with the inconvenience and neediness of another is simply to eliminate it. Already assisted suicide has become legal in this country, and euthanasia is being practiced in Europe. Yet the Christian call is not to deny need, but to answer it with compassion and love. In a developed nation like the United States, I think the poorest of the poor are often found in nursing homes, especially those without families to visit them. The only attentions they get are for feeding them or assisting them medically. They are getting their basic needs answered, but little or nothing else.
With the current demographic trends, it seems as though these problems are only going to become more prevalent. Particularly relevant in dealing with this is, I think, the fourth commandment: "Honor your father and mother." We owe it to people who have helped us grow and develop, even regardless of a blood relationship to them, to care for them and love them. We need to honor the gift of their lives.
What my dad told me and my siblings has stuck with me, and it has shaped the way I believe the elderly should be treated. They need more than just food and medicine; they need loving, caring relationships, and if this becomes a societal need, it becomes a need that the Church will need to be ready to help fill. As someone who may someday be the leader in a parish, I need to be prepared to address it.
It is no wonder that John Allen wrote that, of the "near-certain consequences" of the demographic trends, "networks of care in churches," "parish nursing," and "growth in elderly ministry" made the top seven. To take a line from the Mass, "it is right and just." In the face of a society which may try to deal with the needy humanity around it in an inhuman way, Allen has helped me realize that I will need to be particularly aware of how I can serve the elderly segment of the population and work to help others recognize them and serve them as well.