One of the most interesting and challenging issues facing communities of faith is the growing awareness, as Boomers age out, that mental illness and the issues associated with this subject, can no longer be avoided. My own tradition has seen a slow, but steady, growth in awareness of this issue. Slowly, congregations have begun to look at how they, in a caring and supportive manner, can be there for individuals and families who are dealing with mental illness. Just in the past month, I have had the honor of being involved in two programs in two different congregations that looked at aspects of this issue.
Mental health issues still remain shrouded in secrecy for many families. It is curious, as I travel the country, that it is now easier to speak of someone dealing with cancer, than it is to speak of someone with, say, clinical depression. That stigma still has a hold on the community, despite increasing media attention. Likewise, dementia and Alzheimer’s. This concern is expected to triple in the next decades as Boomer age.
A major concern, voiced by geriatricians and nurses and experts in the field, is that given the expected rise in these cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia, there are simply not enough trained care-givers to take care of this population. Add to this medical reality, the reality of what I call the “economics of aging” and you can see the crises that is not looming, but beginning.
The role of faith communities in this issue will be crucial. The questions of “why” continue to be asked, especially as there is no cure.
Not only the question of “why” is this happening to my loved one, but, as those of us who have walked this walk with a family member know, there is the other nagging and frightening question of “is this going to be me?”. These are not medical issues, but profoundly spiritual issues that may go to the essence of one’s faith and search for meaning.
At the heart of much of this discussion is also the belief, fundamental to so many religious communities, of the dignity of a human being. Can there be dignity when someone’s mind has been stripped from its moorings, or when they are totally dependent on caretaker for feeding, toiling, etc? Where does that soul go? A challenge to all religious communities is to speak about these issues. from their own faith positions, so that stigma of fear can be reduced. Even such an act as the clergy preaching on this issue can go a long way to reduce stigma and give permission for people to speak to their clergy or come forward to seek support.
One of the other issues that congregations face is how to make sure people are included and contacted. I am referring to the disease of isolation that impacts so many elders. It is this social isolation that can lead to serious depression which in turn can lead to physical ailments and even, as we are seeing, thoughts of self destruction. Isolation is a serious challenge to our increasingly “plugged in” world. As nice as a text or e-mail may be, nothing takes the place of a personal visit to a person who may be shut in, living alone or isolated in a facility. The value of social interaction cannot be overstated and it is a real concern in our society which all too often places people and generations in silos.
Finally, there is a growing awareness that the care and support of caretakers is a priority. The issues of mental health are often a family systems issue. How does a community of faith support and care for the caregivers? We know of congregations that have developed special religious services honoring the care-givers and incorporated specific prayers for healing that are intentioned for families and individuals dealing with mental heal concerns. The faith communities have a unique role to play in caring and supporting these people and our sense is that slowly, given the realities of life, these communities of faith are seeking meaningful ways to respond.