Lonely and sidelined - the plight of older people, even in the Church

(Photo: Wojciech Wolak)

The Pilgrims' Friend Society has been caring for the elderly since 1807, when a group of young Christians in Islington became concerned that older people were not being given the support they needed.

Their first home for the elderly was built in 1835, and more followed.  The Society now has housing all over the UK and cares for hundreds of elderly Christians.

Their passion is "the wellbeing – both practical and spiritual, of older people", and the Pilgrims are working to educate the nation about how we can best support elderly citizens, both at home and within a church context.

"Every week, at least ten elderly people die alone in their homes, which is just appalling," explains the society's Louise Morse.

Just this week, Age UK released statistics which reveal that the percentage of over-65s who receive practical help has fallen by a third since the period 2005 to 2006; a situation that the charity's director has described as "catastrophic".

The total spending on social care services for older people has fallen by over $£750 million since 2010, which Age UK contends is having a "distressing human cost".

Louise feels similarly: "We've decided to speak out and encourage people to get educated about it.

"Our heart comes from Galatians 6:10, which says 'Let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers'. Our concern is the welfare of older Christians, and so as well as looking after them ourselves, we want to share what we know so that others are better able to help them too."

The society runs interactive workshops and representatives regularly speak in churches about the issues surrounding care for the elderly, who account for around one sixth of the total UK population.

"It's really common for older people to experience depression," Louise notes.

"They are often sidelined by the Church, and lose their sense of identity and value. On top of that, with so many of them living alone, there's an issue of loneliness.

"We've found overwhelmingly that people want to know how to better care for the elderly in their communities. We have pastors coming up to us, saying that they just aren't trained to care for older people, and so we're doing our best to educate churches to do just that."

Louise also maintains that elderly people have a key role to play in evangelising, particularly to other older members of the community.

"We want to enable and empower older people," she says.

"Our aim is to do what we can to address the needs that elderly people have, to reach out to them and in turn to help them to reach out to others."

The main concern, however, is challenging the misconceptions about elderly people that are prevalent in our modern day culture, which the Pilgrims' Friend Society believes contributes to a lack of understanding and ultimately to poor care.

"There is terrible ageism in this county, and people have adopted society's values of older people and that's what needs to be addressed. It's where abuse in the home comes from," Louise contends, referring to the elderly abuse scandals that have hit the headlines in recent years.

"The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) even released a report suggesting that medication is withheld from the over 75s because they have lower societal worth, and we want people to stand up against that view.

"It's about giving a better understanding of what it means to be old, changing perceptions, making people believe in community again, and working so that God's view of elderly people is the accepted view, not society's."