Caring for Time’s Survivors

by Nancy G. Westerfield

Nancy G. Westerfield is a free-lance writer and poet who lives in Kearney, Nebraska.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 20, 1988, p. 69. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Younger women should assume responsibility for and minister to elderly and widowed women.

I am not a widow myself. I’m watching the two neighbors while I clear the table after a leisurely breakfast shared with my retired husband. But there is a weighted chance that I too will become one of the widows on my street. And any married woman reading this, whatever her age, faces weighted statistics that predict she will survive her mate. We are likely to be survivors. This is part of the mysterious chemistry of being a woman: we carry longevity within ourselves the way we carry children: a man, of course. carries neither.

My neighbor Mary has family, and a church family besides. She has been active all her life in her faith, and once participated in a vital lay missionary movement. Sundays are special for her. Her daughter. a college professor, arrives with her own family to drive Mary to church. Smartly dressed and carrying her Bible. Mary is off to Sunday school and worship. Afterward, they share Sunday dinner and her lively grandchildren play in the yard.

But across the street at Nellie’s, Sunday is nothing special. The only kin who ever comes is a niece, one afternoon every other week. Nellie still drives, but only for a once-a-week Thursday morning venture to buy groceries and the cats’ food. I suspect that Nellie’s cuisine is even leaner than "Lean Cuisine." Laboriously, she struggles first to open the garage doors: after the slow journey, she struggles carrying grocery sacks inside and closing the garage again for the week. Later I can see her between her front window draperies, rocking and resting, holding Cindy in her lap.

I am an observant neighbor. as you can tell. Fortunately. I am not alone in taking notice. More and more, churches are paying attention to their survivors and their needs. The generic person once called ‘‘the man in the pew’’ is really ‘‘the woman in the pew." and she is growing older. Like society as a whole, churches are aware that a steadily increasing percentage of the population is over 65. My own Episcopal Church, through organizations like ESMA -- Episcopal Society for Ministry on Aging -- is tackling some of the problems of the aged. That the aged have problems. I agree. That the aged are problems. I deny. They are our prized possessions. They are my neighbors. Told to love his neighbor, the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke challenged Jesus: ‘‘And who is my neighbor?" I can tell you, legal sir: her name is Mary, and Nellie, and Sallie, and Helen. and all those others on my street.

Mary and Nellie illustrate two stages of the aging process that the church ought well to address. Mary belongs to the "young old.’’ Textbooks in gerontology use this phrase to describe people in their 60s and 70s who have minimal health problems, are active, outgoing and satisfied with their self-image. Petite, pretty and trim, Mary wears the most fashionable colors in stockings and suits that set off her slim waist and fluffy hair. She enjoys people and social occasions. For her, the church needs to be a social center where she wants to go regularly. Guilds and clubs, bridge and other special-interest groups can offer her attractive weekday outings. A full calendar in Fellowship Hall means a full, rich life even for a woman who lives alone.

It’s a different story on the other side of the street. One of the ‘‘old old,’’ Nellie can no longer get to where she would like to go. Her life-space has shrunk to just her modest house and yard. The church needs to come to her, in innovative ways. One well-used way is the church newsletter. For the elderly shut-in, that is often the only bond to remembrance of the church as it once was. Names in the church newsletter are always important, but to no one more than a reader whose memory goes back three generations for each family. Perhaps an occasional paragraph of news about older parishioners can help to preserve their ties, or to bring them together. My husband receives an emeriti newsletter from his university that both elicits and distributes twice-yearly reports of what the retired faculty are doing.

In every church, a sustained program of personal visiting -- especially by laypeople -- is an important need of the aged, Clergy, of course, cannot be expected to do all things, Serving communion to the elderly in their homes once a month is reasonable to expect from a minister: a weekly contact is not. But any Christian can manage a single one-on-one contact with a neighbor once a week. "Pure religion is this," says the Letter of James: ‘‘to visit widows in their affliction.

Visitation needs to reach out to survivors in their final life-space; for many, this will be half of a room in a nursing home, Many a pleasant neighborhood has its street of widows, but in all nursing homes you will find that they fill the corridors. For ten years, my husband and I have ministered to nursing-home residents. We could count on ten fingers the men who lived long enough to be served by our mission. "We will bury you" is no idle threat from elderly women to elderly men,

Visitation eases the aged person’s hard transition to this ultimate closed society, the care home. Part of the aging process is withdrawal to an increasingly closed society. Feelings of vulnerability and fears for security may lead the "young old" to seek a kind of closed society from the church, a safe refuge with shared values, When that ceases to be available, the older person may still have the small pleasures of independence in her own home, Eventually she can no longer care for that. After, years of aloneness, a widow is suddenly the roommate of another widow, the privacy of both as lost as youth. Who can understand the sorrow of it better than other women?

My vision of the church’s care for survivors is women ministering to women -- every woman assuming some responsibility for an older woman. At 62, I am old enough to appreciate the gentle caretaking relationship I already enjoy with a woman in her early 40s. In my turn, I assume responsibility for some women older than I. In fact, I function as a kind of block mother to the aged, the way young mothers become block mothers for schoolchildren. It takes very little time for a woman keeping house to be alert to the habits and hours of other women keeping house nearby. I know what time Mary’s bedroom shades are raised in the morning. I know that at 9:00 P.M. Nellie’s last light will go out, and that she rises at 5:30. If there is any variation from those set patterns, I watch throughout the day to make sure my neighbor makes some appearance. Perhaps an element of feminine curiosity is involved here. For centuries women have been curious about other women’s lives, about people in general, because that was the only curiosity they were permitted to satisfy. Now that women are allowed to explore their curiosity about the secrets of nature, they have become physicists, physicians or astronomers. But they are still concerned about the lives of other women.

Women ministering individually to women is my vision because I believe that women’s nurturing instinct is deep. Mothers cared for us; in our turn, we care for our aging mothers. When our mothers are taken from us, how easily we let that love flow toward a second "mother." I believe that in the divine economy of the universe, no love is ever wasted. This is one way not to waste love. Women identify with other women, as men cannot, in sharing the extent and power of sorrow. So often, women’s lives are lives of loss and sorrow. We have a capacity for grieving that men scarcely approach. We see a surviving beauty in older women that few men see because men are acculturated to value desirability and physical attractiveness. A highly educated and professional elderly man I know well turns from elderly women with aversion, prizing still the beauty of youth. "The church," he says scoffingly, "is full of docile old women who give the minister his power, who never question."

Women need to learn how to minister to older women. Listening can be anyone’s modest ministry. All the elderly long to tell their stories, For soon the past will be gone, impossible to retrieve, Listen on the telephone, for they appreciate the few minutes of a reassuring call. Listen during a visit to a chosen person to whom you can relate sensitively and for whom you can provide sustained contact. Listen and watch, if you live on a street of widows. Be a block mother to the aged. Make it a Lenten obligation this year to bring into the church’s social circle one survivor who is actively young-old, and to take the church out, lovingly, to one survivor who can only sit, waiting for that love to come.